Mammalian erythropoiesis has long been established to occur within erythroblastic islands (EBIs), niches where erythroblasts differentiate in close contact with a central macrophage. While it is generally accepted that EBI macrophages play an important role in regulation of erythropoiesis, very little is known about the specific macrophage populations involved in EBI formation, the regulation that occurs within EBIs, or how this niche fits into the broader context of hematopoiesis.

We analyzed native EBIs isolated from mouse bone marrow using multispectral imaging flow cytometry (Seu et. al. Front Immunol 2017). Consistent with historical observations, the EBIs were heterogeneous and many contained a number of closely CD11b+ cells in addition to erythroblasts and a central F4/80+ macrophage. Flow cytometry analysis of cells dissociated from native bone marrow EBIs indicated these niches are also enriched 2-3 fold in myeloblasts and granulocytic precursors up to metamyelocytes relative to the total bone marrow while they are depleted of mature granulocytes (bands and segmented cells). Bulk RNAseq of the CD11b+ population isolated from EBIs showed high expression of genes characteristic of the granulocytic lineage (e.g. Elane, Mpo, Gfi1, Cebpe, Camp, and Mmp9), indicating the EBI macrophages may regulate myelopoiesis along with erythropoiesis and that EBIs should really be considered as erythro-myeloblastic islands (EMBIs).

To critically document the various hematopoietic cell populations that constitute EMBIs, we used the 10x Genomics Chromium system to obtain single cell gene expression data on ~3,500 total cells from isolated EMBIs along with at least 1,000 sorted cells from each of the 3 major EMBI-associated populations (F4/80+, CD71+, and CD11b+) (Fig 1a, b). The data were analyzed using 10x Genomics' Loupe cell Browser and Iterative Clustering and Guide-gene Selection (ICGS,, Olsson et. al. Nature 2016). From the ICGS analysis, ~30% of the total EMBI-associated cells were myeloid cells that segregated into at least 3 transcriptionally distinct clusters representing granulocytic progenitors and precursors. As expected, erythroblasts with a progressive maturation pattern made up the bulk (60%) of the EMBI-associated cells, while up to 10% were a heterogeneous population of cells that exhibited expression of macrophage markers such as Csf1R and Irf8, along with genes previously described to characterize resident macrophages, such as Fn1and Fsp1/S100A4 (Fig 1c).

In order to investigate the balance of myeloid cells with erythroid cells within the EMBIs, we examined the ratio of CD71+ cells to CD11b+ and how this ratio changes in models of altered granulopoiesis. While the number of myeloid cells at any island varied, the overall ratio of CD11b+ area to CD71+ within the EMBIs was relatively constant at steady state. In three different murine models of anemia of inflammation (AoI), we found that this ratio of CD11b+ to CD71+ cells within the EMBI increases dramatically indicating that the increased granulopoiesis and suppression of erythropoiesis noted in AoI is a result of altered balance of the hematopoiesis within the EMBI unit. Similarly, stimulation of granulopoiesis with GCSF also results in a shift within the EMBIs to CD11b+ myeloid cells and suppression of erythroid cells. Alternatively, in gfi1 KO mice, a model of congenital neutropenia in which granulopoiesis fails at an early stage, the ratio shifts toward CD71+ erythroid cells with paucity of the granulocytic precursors that are typically found at the EMBIs.

Taken together, these data indicate that granulocyte progenitors and precursors are specifically associated with EMBI macrophages in the mouse bone marrow. The preferential localization of myeloid precursors within EMBIs suggests this niche is a site for granulopoiesis as well as erythropoiesis and production of these lineages is dynamically regulated within this niche. Our work with multiple murine models of altered granulopoiesis demonstrates that pathological expansion of one of the lineages within this niche may suppress the other and that the interactions within the EMBI could be a useful therapeutic target for AoI. These novel findings significantly broaden our understanding of the role of this hematopoietic niche in the regulated development of lineage committed erythroid and myeloid cells.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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