Osteolineage cells (OLCs) have been shown to participate in a regulatory bone marrow microenvironment for the hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) – the endosteal niche. Our previous experiments using live animal imaging have demonstrated that single transplanted HSPCs preferentially home in close proximity to the individual OLCs. We hypothesized that these HSPC-proximal cells represent a distinct subpopulation of OLCs, which is specifically involved in a non-cell autonomous regulation of HSPC quiescence and self-renewal.
To test this hypothesis, we developed a novel experimental platform, which allows visualization of HSPC-OLC cell pairs in-vivo and retrieval of the individual OLCs for molecular analysis. We intravenously injected DiI labeled adult bone marrow-derived FACS-sorted Lin−Sca1+c-kit+CD34−Flk2− HSPCs into irradiated newborn collagen 2.3GFP mouse recipients; in this transgenic strain, the majority of the OLCs are labeled with green fluorescent protein (GFP). 48 hours later, we sacrificed the animals and obtained fresh unfixed sections of femoral trabecular bone. Using a combination of differential interference contrast fluorescent microscopy, in-situ enzymatic digestion and micromanipulation, we harvested individual GFP-positive OLCs located within 2 cell diameters (“niche” OLCs) or greater than 5 cell diameters (“control” OLCs) from single DiI-bright HSPCs.
Following reverse transcription and cDNA amplification with 29 cycles of PCR, as per the single cell RNA-Seq protocol (Tang et al, Nature Protocols 2010), we performed real-time RT-PCR analysis of 31 samples – 15 niche cells and 16 controls - for the OLC signature genes (osteocalcin, osterix) and for the genes implicated in playing a functional role in the HSPC-OLC cell interaction (osteopontin, CXCL12, angiopoietin 1). Transcripts for GAPDH, collagen 1 and GFP served as positive controls for the amplification.
As expected, all cells were positive for GFP and over 85% cells expressed collagen 1. Osteopontin and CXCL12 were expressed at a similar level and frequency in the niche and control OLCs. However, we found that angiopoietin 1 transcripts were detected exclusively in the niche OLCs (3/15 versus 0/16, p <0.05 by Chi-squared). Moreover, niche OLCs were enriched for the osterix-positive cells (7/15 versus 2/16, p <0.05 by Chi-squared) and expressed a lower level of osteocalcin, as normalized for GAPDH expression (1.13 vs. 0.97, p< 0.05 by t-test).
Our results suggest that niche OLCs may have a distinct molecular signature and reside within a population of very immature OLCs, as evidenced by the osterix + osteocalcin low phenotype. Further unbiased transcriptome characterization of these cells using genome-wide RNA-Seq assay is therefore likely to provide more evidence in support of our hypothesis and reveal novel non-cell autonomous regulators of HSPC quiescence. To our knowledge, this approach represents the first attempt to define molecular heterogeneity in-vivo at a single cell level using the micro-anatomical relationship between two heterologous cell types.
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Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.