The challenges of visualizing the mammalian bone marrow have precluded a rigorous analysis of the dynamic cell-cell interactions that control hematopoietic stem and progenitor cell (HSPC) engraftment. The transparent zebrafish embryo provides an unparalleled opportunity to directly visualize HSPC-niche cell interactions in live animals. To identify genes expressed in the zebrafish caudal hematopoietic tissue (CHT) - an embryonic niche akin to the mammalian fetal liver - we employed a new technique called tomo-seq (RNA tomography). By pairing cryosectioning with RNA-seq, this technology permits spatial analysis of transcriptome-wide gene expression. Using tomo-seq we identified ~300 genes showing enriched expression in the CHT. In situ hybridization for 75 of 107 tested genes confirmed CHT expression. In parallel we performed RNA-seq on isolated cell populations, including endothelial cells, macrophages, neutrophils and erythrocytes, sorted from whole embryos. By cross-referencing these datasets we determined the cell types in which many of the 300 CHT-enriched genes were expressed. This analysis revealed several cell surface adhesion receptors enriched on macrophages in the CHT, including the integrin heterodimers itgam/itgb2, itgae/itgb7, itga4/itgb1b and itga4/itgb7. We examined whether known ligands for any of these integrins were present on HSPCs. In situ hybridization to vcam1 (ligand for itga4/itgb1b)showed punctate HSPC-like staining in the CHT. We then generated a vcam1:GFP promoter fusion, which we found was expressed in HSPCs. Using spinning disk confocal microscopy we imaged HSPCs and macrophages in the CHT and observed direct and specific physical interactions that preceded the engraftment of HSPCs. In a grooming-like behavior that lasts for 30-45 minutes, the HSPC is engaged by the macrophage, which moves all over the surface of the cell, before disengaging the HSPC, which then remains in the CHT. Between 48-72 hours post fertilization (hpf), 20% of HSPCs were engaged in this behavior with a macrophage. To evaluate the specificity of these interactions we established in vitro co-cultures using purified cell populations. In co-cultures between macrophages (mpeg1:mCherry) and HSPCs (cd41:GFP) we observed cell-cell interactions that were strikingly similar to those observed in vivo. In macrophage-HSPC co-cultures, 25% of cells were found to interact, whereas only 5% of cells were found to interact in macrophage-erythrocyte co-cultures. To functionally evaluate the macrophage-HSPC interactions in vivo, we depleted macrophages from zebrafish embryos at 55 hpf using clodronate liposomes and observed circulating HSPCs with a significant reduction in HSPC engraftment in the CHT (11/15 embryos, compared to the control where 14/14 embryos showed normal CHT engraftment). Together these studies establish a role for macrophages in promoting the niche engraftment of HSPCs. The results of this work could have important implications for the design of new therapies to improve engraftment during stem cell transplantation.


Zon:Scholar Rock: Equity Ownership, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Other: Founder; Fate, Inc.: Equity Ownership, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Other: Founder; Marauder Therapeutics: Equity Ownership, Other: Founder.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.