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Cultured cell lines are the workhorse of cancer research, but it is unclear to what extent they recapitulate the cellular heterogeneity observed among malignant cells in tumors, given the absence of a native tumor microenvironment. Here, we used multiplexed single cell RNA-Seq to profile ~200 cancer cell lines. We uncovered expression programs that are recurrently heterogeneous within many cancer cell lines and are largely independent of observed genetic diversity. These programs of heterogeneity are associated with diverse biological processes, including cell cycle, senescence, stress and interferon responses, epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and protein maturation and degradation. Notably, some of these recurrent programs recapitulate those seen in human tumors, suggesting a prominent role of intrinsic plasticity in generating intra-tumoral heterogeneity. Moreover, the data allowed us to prioritize specific cell lines as model systems of cellular plasticity. We used two such models to demonstrate the dynamics, regulation and vulnerabilities associated with a cancer senescence program observed both in cell lines and in human tumors. Our work describes the landscape of cellular heterogeneity in diverse cancer cell lines, and identifies recurrent patterns of expression heterogeneity that are shared between tumors and specific cell lines and can thus be further explored in follow up studies.

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