Trophoblast (TB) comprises the outer cell layers of the mammalian placenta that make direct contact with the maternal uterus and, in species with a highly invasive placenta, maternal blood. It has its origin as trophectoderm, a single epithelial layer of extra-embryonic ectoderm that surrounds the embryo proper at the blastocyst stage of development. Here, we briefly compare the features of TB specification and determination in the mouse and the human. We then review research on a model system that has been increasingly employed to study TB emergence, namely the BMP4 (bone morphogenetic protein-4)-directed differentiation of human embryonic stem cells (ESCd), and discuss why outcomes using it have proved so uneven. We also examine the controversial aspects of this model, particularly the issue of whether or not the ESCd represents TB at all. Our focus here has been to explore similarities and potential differences between the phenotypes of ESCd, trophectoderm, placental villous TB, and human TB stem cells. We then explore the role of BMP4 in the differentiation of human pluripotent cells to TB and suggest that it converts the ESC into a totipotent state that is primed for TB differentiation when self-renewal is blocked. Finally we speculate that the TB formed from ESC is homologous to the trophectoderm-derived, invasive TB that envelopes the implanting conceptus during the second week of pregnancy.
BMP4-driven differentiation of human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells provides a useful model for studying the specification and early development of early placental trophoblast.