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Basal stem cell fate specification is mediated by SMAD signaling in the developing human lung

By Alyssa J. Miller, Qianhui Yu, Michael Czerwinski, Yu-Hwai Tsai, Renee F. Conway, Angeline Wu, Emily M. Holloway, Taylor Walker, Ian A. Glass, Barbara Treutlein, J. Gray Camp, Jason R. Spence

Posted 04 Nov 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/461103 (published DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2020.01.033)

Basal stem cells (basal cells), located in the bronchi and trachea of the human lung epithelium, play a critical role in normal airway homeostasis and repair, and have been implicated in the development of diseases such as cancer. Additionally, basal-like cells contribute to alveolar regeneration and fibrosis following severe injury. However, the developmental origin of basal cells in humans is unclear. Previous work has shown that specialized progenitor cells exist at the tips of epithelial tubes during lung branching morphogenesis, and in mice, give rise to all alveolar and airway lineages. These bud tip progenitor cells have also been described in the developing human lung, but the mechanisms controlling bud tip differentiation into specific cell lineages, including basal cells, are unknown. Here, we interrogated the bud tip-to-basal cell transition using human tissue specimens, bud tip progenitor organoid cultures, and single-cell transcriptomics. We used single-cell mRNA sequencing (scRNAseq) of developing human lung specimens from 15-21 weeks gestation to identify molecular signatures and cell states in the developing human airway epithelium. We then inferred differentiation trajectories during bud tip-to-airway differentiation, which revealed a previously undescribed transitional cell state (hub progenitors) and implicated SMAD signaling as a regulator of the bud tip-to-basal cell transition. We used bud tip progenitor organoids to show that TGFb1 and BMP4 mediated SMAD signaling robustly induced the transition into functional basal-like cells, and these in vitro-derived basal cells exhibited clonal expansion, self-renewal and multilineage differentiation. This work provides a framework for deducing and validating key regulators of cell fate decisions using single cell transcriptomics and human organoid models. Further, the identification of SMAD signaling as a critical regulator of newly born basal cells in the lung may have implications for regenerative medicine, basal cell development in other organs, and understanding basal cell misregulation in disease.

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