Combined biosensors, time-lapse imaging, and microfluidics enable signaling dynamics quantification in live HSPCs.
Human HSPC ERK signaling dynamics are heterogeneous and specific for cytokines and their combinations in a cell-type–dependent manner.
How hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) integrate signals from their environment to make fate decisions remains incompletely understood. Current knowledge is based on either averages of heterogeneous populations or snapshot analyses, both missing important information about the dynamics of intracellular signaling activity. By combining fluorescent biosensors with time-lapse imaging and microfluidics, we measured the activity of the extracellular-signal–regulated kinase (ERK) pathway over time (ie, dynamics) in live single human umbilical cord blood HSCs and multipotent progenitor cells (MPPs). In single cells, ERK signaling dynamics were highly heterogeneous and depended on the cytokines, their combinations, and cell types. ERK signaling was activated by stem cell factor (SCF) and FMS-like tyrosine kinase 3 ligand in HSCs but SCF, interleukin 3, and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor in MPPs. Different cytokines and their combinations led to distinct ERK signaling dynamics frequencies, and ERK dynamics in HSCs were more transient than those in MPPs. A combination of 5 cytokines recently shown to maintain HSCs in long-term culture, had a more-than-additive effect in eliciting sustained ERK dynamics in HSCs. ERK signaling dynamics also predicted future cell fates. For example, CD45RA expression increased more in HSC daughters with intermediate than with transient or sustained ERK signaling. We demonstrate heterogeneous cytokine- and cell-type–specific ERK signaling dynamics, illustrating their relevance in regulating hematopoietic stem and progenitor (HSPC) cell fates.