Abstract: Basal cells are multipotent stem cells of a variety of organs, and in the lung are known as crucial components of the airway epithelium. However, it remains unclear how diverse basal cells are and whether distinct subpopulations respond differently to airway challenges. Using single cell RNA-sequencing and functional approaches, we report a significant and previously underappreciated degree of heterogeneity in the basal cell pool, leading to identification of six subpopulations in the murine trachea. Among these we found two major subpopulations comprising the most stem-like progenitor compartment, but with distinct signatures and ability to self-renew and differentiate. Notably, these occupy distinct ventral and dorsal tracheal niches and differ in their ability to initiate an aberrant program of differentiation in response to environmental perturbations in primary cultures and in injury mouse models in vivo. We found that such heterogeneity is acquired prenatally, when the basal cell pool and local niches are being established, and depends on the integrity of these niches, as supported by the altered basal cell phenotype of cartilage-deficient mouse mutants. Lastly, we show that key features that distinguish these progenitor subpopulations in murine airways are conserved in humans. Together, the data provide critical insights into the origin and impact of basal cell heterogeneity on the establishment of regionally distinct responses of the airway epithelium during injury-repair and in disease conditions.

Journal Link: 10.1101/2022.05.04.490677 Journal Link: Publisher Website Journal Link: Download PDF Journal Link: Google Scholar