Hans Clevers and a team of Dutch and Swedish researchers conducted a study in mice and found that the stem cell that gives produces all the different cells of the skin actually lives in hair follicles.
The findings, which they say will translate for human use, mean it may be possible to harness these stem cells to help with wound repair or skin transplants for burns victims, they said in a study in the Science journal on Thursday.
The skin has three different populations of cells -- hair follicles, moisturizing sebaceous glands, and the tissue in between, known as the interfollicular epidermis. Stem cells are original cells, or drivers, from which all human cells develop.
Scientists had previously thought that stem cells in each of these three skin populations were capable of producing their own cell type, but until now, a mother stem cell which produces all three types had not been found.
Clevers' team found that a group of stem cells that live in hair follicles and which have high levels of a gene called Lgr6 are the original epidermal stem cells.
In tests on mice with wounds, they found that Lrg6 cells around the wound drove new skin growth and repaired the skin.
Scientists are already able to grow new skin in laboratories using tissue from existing skin cells from patients who have been badly burned, but the new skin is often brittle, dry and does not have hair -- making it look unusual.
Clevers said the advantage offered by the mother stem cell finding would be that they could grow skin from its original basis -- allowing it to be real new skin with moisture from sebaceous glands and the ability to grow hair.
He said researchers now need to learn how to isolate the Lrg6 cells from human skin. That could take 2 to 3 years.