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Explain Stem Cell Function and Use

In this worksheet, students will explain the functions of stem cells and their uses.

'Explain Stem Cell Function and Use' worksheet

Key stage:  KS 4

GCSE Subjects:   Biology: Single Subject, Biology: Combined Science

GCSE Boards:   OCR 21st Century

Curriculum topic:   Using Food and Controlling Growth

Curriculum subtopic:   Should We Use Stem Cells to Treat Damage and Disease?

Difficulty level:  

Worksheet Overview

QUESTION 1 of 10

Image of a human embryo

 

The alien lookalike above is actually a picture of an embryo at around six weeks old! A zygote is formed when an egg is fertilised by a sperm. After fertilisation the zygote starts to divide, it's now called an embryo. All the cells are identical to each other and can become any type of cell. They're embryonic stem cells. These can stay as stem cells or become differentiated (specialised) to become another type of cell such as a muscle cell, red blood cell or a nerve cell. Sometimes, you will find adult stem cells among the differentiated cells - these can become differentiated later on. 


 

Image showing uses of stem cells

 

 

 

Function of stem cells

 

Our chromosomes have thousands of genes that can code for many proteins. We don’t need all of these genetic codes to be active all of the time in our body cells, so they're switched off. This way the cell only produces the proteins it needs to function.

Specialised cells produce specific proteins because the genes coding for these proteins are activated or switched on. Embryonic stem cells are able to differentiate into any cell type. This is because any of the genes in their chromosomes are able to be switched on. 

Stem cells are important for many reasons. In the embryo, stem cells will develop into the whole body of the organism, including all of the organs such as the heart, lungs, skin and other tissues and cells. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, adult stem cells are used to replace cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury or disease. 

 

 

Uses of stem cells

 

The fact that stem cells can undergo cell division and become differentiated to any cell type, makes stem cells really interesting to scientists. It opens the door to potential new treatments to replace cells lost to injury and disease, and research may help to develop alternatives to organ transplants, as well as to enable testing the effects of new drugs. 

Embryonic stem cells can be used in research to help scientists develop new cells to replace damaged or diseased cells. The stem cells could be injected into damaged organs to rebuild the tissues. This would reduce the need for organ transplants. The stem cells would need to have the same genes as the patient, otherwise they would be rejected by the patient’s immune system. They would need to be clones. The DNA of an embryo cell can be replaced with the DNA from a patient’s cell. The embryo produces stem cells containing the patient’s genes. The cells will not be rejected, so immune-suppressing drugs are not needed. This process is called therapeutic cloning.

 

 

Ethical issues

 

There are different types of issues depending on the type of cells involved. With embryonic stem cells,  the issue of using embryos can be a sensitive topic. Often, the issue of whether it's right or wrong to use embryos for research or for therapy poses an ethical dilemma. 

To obtain embryonic stem cells, the early embryo may have to be destroyed. Some people's religious or personal beliefs view the embryo as representing life and that it should only be used to create a baby. People may view the early embryo as a person and therefore believe it has the same rights as any other living person. Others may believe the embryo isn't a person as it doesn't share any features or properties with people. 

So you can see, it's quite a complicated situation with no clear right or wrong answer! That's the thing with ethical issues, they will vary from person to person as they are dependent on personal values, morals and beliefs.

Because of this, the government regulates the use of stem cells in research and medicines in many countries. The government will help oversee whether the benefits of stem cell use outweigh the risks. For example, obtaining and storing stem cells can be difficult. Mutations can occur in stem cells and they could become contaminated with pathogens.  If there are too many risks and not many benefits, stem cell research or therapy could be rejected. It all depends on individual cases.

 In science, obtaining a balanced view is important and often there is no one correct answer. 


 

Stem cells in plants

 

Stem cells are not only found in animals but plants too. Let's find out more below.

 

Image of a plants meristem regions

 

In plant cells, cell division only happens in certain areas called meristems. Meristems are found at the tips of roots and shoots and in between tissues. The cells in the meristem can divide over and over again to produce non-specialised cells. Some of these cells continue to divide, allowing the plant to grow taller and wider throughout its life.

Other non-specialised cells that are produced at the meristem can develop into any type of specialised plant cell and go on to form different plant tissues, leaves and flowers. This activity contributes to plant growth and development.

As with human stem cells, plant meristem cells have many uses too. For example, they can be used to produce clones of plants very quickly and economically. Also, plants that have special features such as being disease resistant or frost resistant can be cloned to produce lots of crops.  Another use is to protect rare plant species from extinction by cloning them.

 

In the following activity, you will explain the functions of stem cells and their uses.

 

 

 

Explain what a stem cell is by matching up the boxes below. 

Column A

Column B

A stem cell is an...
...produce other cells by differentiating
A stem cell is able to produce
...many cells of the same type
A stem cell is also able to...
...undifferentiated cell

Stem cells can be found in the parts of a plant that are growing. These areas are called the meristem regions.

 

Describe some of the features of the meristem.

 

Image of a plants meristem regions

Found all over the plant

Divide quickly by mitosis

Found only in the stem

Can remain undifferentiated or can differentiate

When an egg is fertilised by a sperm, it will start dividing and form an embryo. It will reach the eight-cell stage.

 

What is important about the eight-cell stage?

 

Image of egg and sperm cells

 

Found all over the plant

Divide quickly by mitosis

Found only in the stem

Can remain undifferentiated or can differentiate

An embryo is formed soon after fertilisation.

 

Why do embryos need stem cells? 

To create a baby

To differentiate into any cell type needed for development of embryo

To not allow cell differentiation

Embryonic stem cells are taken from an embryo. Adult stem cells might be taken from the bone marrow and differentiate into blood cells.

 

What type of blood cells may form from these stem cells? 

Red blood cell

Nerve cell

Platelets

Muscle cell

Stem cells have lots of uses in medical treatment.

 

Match the potential uses of stem cells.  

 

Image showing uses of stem cells

Column A

Column B

Nerve cells
Burns and ulcers
Heart muscle cells
Diabetes
Insulin-secreting cells
Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries
Skin cells
Some kinds of blindness
Retina cells
Damage caused by a heart attack

Stem cells can be used in medical treatment. One of these processes is known as therapeutic cloning.

 

 Describe this process by matching up the sentences below. 

Column A

Column B

Stem cells could be injected into damaged organs t...
...Otherwise they would be rejected by the patient...
The stem cells would need to have the same genes a...
...With the DNA from a patient’s cell
The DNA of an embryo cell can be replaced...
...This would reduce the need for organ transplant...
The embryo produces stem cells containing the pati...
...therapeutic cloning.
This process is called...
...The cells will not be rejected so immune-suppre...

Some people don't think it's right to use embryos for their stem cells.

 

Read through the statements below and select two statements that don't agree with embryonic stem cell use.

Scientists believe the best stem cells come from embryos

Stem cells could be used to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and diabetes

Some types of stem cells can be taken from other places, including adult tissues, without the need to kill embryos

Embryos are living and using them for research is the same as murder

Compare the similarities and differences between plant and animal stem cells.

 Animal Stem CellPlant Stem Cell
Some stem cells remain unspecialised
Stem cells are found in embryo’s umbilical cord and bone marrow
Stem cells found in meristems
Stem cells already differentiated are no longer able to change/specialise again
The two daughter cells are separated by a cell membrane
The two daughter cells are separated by a cell plate that goes on to form a cell wall
Stem cells divide by mitosis to produce two daughter cells
Stem cells divide to form identical cells

Decide if these statements are for or against the use of stem cells?

 

 

A

Unused embryos will be discarded anyway, so why not use them for research?   

B

Stem cells may provide a useful way to test the effects of new experimental drugs. 

 

C

Embryos are living and using them for research is the same as murder.

 

D

 Stem cells could be used to treat diseases such as Parkinson's disease, heart disease and diabetes.

 

 

 

  • Question 1

Explain what a stem cell is by matching up the boxes below. 

CORRECT ANSWER

Column A

Column B

A stem cell is an...
...undifferentiated cell
A stem cell is able to produce
...many cells of the same type
A stem cell is also able to...
...produce other cells by differe...
EDDIE SAYS
You've been plunged straight into the deep end with this first question! At least you didn't have to write anything, so that you could use a mixture of common sense and a process of elimination to form the only sentences that could actually work! Stem cells can stay as one type of cell and they can just replicate and produce more of the same. Or they can differentiate into different types of cells - nerve cells or muscle cells for example. Embryonic stem cells are able to differentiate into any cell type. They will switch on genes when they are needed to make them specialised.
  • Question 2

Stem cells can be found in the parts of a plant that are growing. These areas are called the meristem regions.

 

Describe some of the features of the meristem.

 

Image of a plants meristem regions

CORRECT ANSWER
Found all over the plant
Divide quickly by mitosis
Can remain undifferentiated or can differentiate
EDDIE SAYS
Don't worry if you're finding this activity a bit challenging - it is pretty tricky to get your head around this topic, but don't give up! There were three correct options this time. Only cells found in the meristem regions of a plant can divide to produce more identical cells. These are found in different parts of the plant, not in just one particular part. Such cells can remain unspecialised or may differentiate into specialised cells, depending on the plant's needs.
  • Question 3

When an egg is fertilised by a sperm, it will start dividing and form an embryo. It will reach the eight-cell stage.

 

What is important about the eight-cell stage?

 

Image of egg and sperm cells

 

CORRECT ANSWER
EDDIE SAYS
Another tricky one because you've got to think of the words to add! How did you get on? Embryonic stem cells are super important. At the eight-cell stage, all of the cells are identical and can become differentiated, or they can stay as stem cells. The stem cells support the development of the embryo by differentiating into nerve cells or muscle cells, for example.
  • Question 4

An embryo is formed soon after fertilisation.

 

Why do embryos need stem cells? 

CORRECT ANSWER
To differentiate into any cell type needed for development of embryo
EDDIE SAYS
Were you able to use a process of elimination to get the correct answer here? The third option was clearly wrong since the whole point of stem cells is to differentiate! Option one might have looked a possibility but it was too simple and more detail was needed. So the correct answer was the second one. Embryos are a ball of cells with a huge amount of activity going on within! A growing embryo will require all sorts of cells in order to become a baby - it will need nerve cells to eventually form its nervous system; different types of blood cells to form a circulatory system; and the list goes on! Stem cells allow these different cells to form.
  • Question 5

Embryonic stem cells are taken from an embryo. Adult stem cells might be taken from the bone marrow and differentiate into blood cells.

 

What type of blood cells may form from these stem cells? 

CORRECT ANSWER
Red blood cell
Platelets
EDDIE SAYS
The key to this one was to think about the word 'blood'! You can think of adult stem cells as originating from anywhere other than from an embryo. Adult stem cells can still be found in children and not just actual adults! Adult stem cells are typically found in bone marrow or umbilical cord blood (sometimes called fetal stem cells) but can really be found almost anywhere like the heart or liver, although there are fewer of them. If stem cells are to become blood cells, you need to choose options that are to do with the blood, which immediately eliminates nerve and muscle cells. This leaves the two correct options of red blood cells and platelets.
  • Question 6

Stem cells have lots of uses in medical treatment.

 

Match the potential uses of stem cells.  

 

Image showing uses of stem cells

CORRECT ANSWER

Column A

Column B

Nerve cells
Parkinson’s disease and spinal ...
Heart muscle cells
Damage caused by a heart attack
Insulin-secreting cells
Diabetes
Skin cells
Burns and ulcers
Retina cells
Some kinds of blindness
EDDIE SAYS
How do you feel about these matching questions? If you found this one hard, the key would be to match up the obvious ones first - such as skin and burns, or heart muscle and heart attacks. This would make it much easier to match up the more challenging ones. If scientists are able to produce different types of cells from stem cells, they might be able to use them to treat a variety of diseases and disorders. For example, by producing insulin-secreting cells in patients, they will no longer have to treat type 1 diabetes.
  • Question 7

Stem cells can be used in medical treatment. One of these processes is known as therapeutic cloning.

 

 Describe this process by matching up the sentences below. 

CORRECT ANSWER

Column A

Column B

Stem cells could be injected into...
...This would reduce the need for...
The stem cells would need to have...
...Otherwise they would be reject...
The DNA of an embryo cell can be ...
...With the DNA from a patient’...
The embryo produces stem cells co...
...The cells will not be rejected...
This process is called...
...therapeutic cloning.
EDDIE SAYS
Again, with these matching questions, it is always best to start with the ones that are obvious before moving on to those that are more tricky. Therapeutic cloning is an example of stem cells being used in medical treatment. The benefit of using your own stem cells means that there is no rejection by your own immune system and no need to find a donor, making treatment a lot easier.
  • Question 8

Some people don't think it's right to use embryos for their stem cells.

 

Read through the statements below and select two statements that don't agree with embryonic stem cell use.

CORRECT ANSWER
Some types of stem cells can be taken from other places, including adult tissues, without the need to kill embryos
Embryos are living and using them for research is the same as murder
EDDIE SAYS
Decisions based on your personal beliefs are known as ethical issues. There are no right or wrong answers. Use of embryonic stem cells is always a controversial topic, as many people believe that the embryo has a right to life and should not be discarded after use.
  • Question 9

Compare the similarities and differences between plant and animal stem cells.

CORRECT ANSWER
 Animal Stem CellPlant Stem Cell
Some stem cells remain unspecialised
Stem cells are found in embryo’s umbilical cord and bone marrow
Stem cells found in meristems
Stem cells already differentiated are no longer able to change/specialise again
The two daughter cells are separated by a cell membrane
The two daughter cells are separated by a cell plate that goes on to form a cell wall
Stem cells divide by mitosis to produce two daughter cells
Stem cells divide to form identical cells
EDDIE SAYS
What a lot of stuff you've got to know on this topic! However, setting things out in a grid or table can be a really good way to help you to sort out the things you know. This is a quick way to review similarities and differences between animal and plant stem cells before an exam - it's especially useful for the extended response questions.
  • Question 10

Decide if these statements are for or against the use of stem cells?

 

 

A

Unused embryos will be discarded anyway, so why not use them for research?   

B

Stem cells may provide a useful way to test the effects of new experimental drugs. 

 

C

Embryos are living and using them for research is the same as murder.

 

D

 Stem cells could be used to treat diseases such as Parkinson's disease, heart disease and diabetes.

 

 

 

CORRECT ANSWER
EDDIE SAYS
Were you able to identify the two sides to this argument? These arguments are known as ethical issues, as they are based on an individual's morals and beliefs. Phew - this is quite a topic, isn't it! Hopefully, you are feeling a bit more confident with it now.
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