The generation of the hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) is a major goal for regenerative medicine. In the embryo, HSCs derive from a HOXA+ population known as hemogenic endothelium (HE) in a retinoic acid (RA)-dependent manner. Using hPSCs, we have previously identified a KDR+CD235a− mesodermal population that gives rise to a clonally multipotent HOXA+ definitive HE. However, this HE lacks HSC-like capacity in the absence of exogenous transgenes and is functionally unresponsive to RA treatment. Thus, the specification of an RA-dependent hematopoietic program from hPSCs has remained elusive. Through single cell RNA-seq (scRNA-seq) analyses, we identified that 2 distinct KDR+CD235a− populations exist prior to HE specification, distinguishable by CXCR4 expression. Interestingly, KDR+CD235a−CXCR4− mesoderm expressed CYP26A1, an RA degrading enzyme, and harbored definitive hematopoietic potential within hPSC differentiation cultures in the absence of RA signaling, indicating the HE specified from CXCR4− mesoderm as RA-independent (RAi). In sharp contrast, KDR+CD235a−CXCR4+ mesoderm exclusively expressed ALDH1A2, the key enzyme in the synthesis of RA, but lacked hematopoietic potential under the same culture conditions. However, the stage-specific application of RA signaling to CXCR4+ mesoderm resulted in the robust specification of CD34+HOXA+ HE with definitive erythroid, myeloid, and lymphoid hematopoietic potential, establishing this HE as RA-dependent (RAd). Furthermore, while RAi HE entirely failed to persist following murine hematopoietic xenografts, RAd HE transiently persisted within the peripheral blood and bone marrow of murine hosts. To assess whether these functionally distinct hPSC mesodermal progenitors are physiologically relevant to human embryonic development, we integrated scRNA-seq datasets from the hPSC mesodermal cultures and a gastrulating human embryo. These analyses revealed that in vivo, distinct KDR+CXCR4CYP26A1+ and KDR+CXCR4+ALDH1A2+ populations can be found at the stage of emergent mesoderm, following patterning of nascent mesoderm. Additional comparison to later stage human embryos demonstrated that RAd HE has a more fetal-like HOXA expression pattern than RAi HE. Scoring of single fetal HE cells against hPSC-derived HE revealed that while some early fetal HE cells were similar to RAi HE, the late fetal HE cells, which are hypothesized to give rise to HSCs, were more similar to RAd HE. Lastly, as HSC-competent HE is expected to express arterial genes, we found a subset of late fetal HE with this phenotype that were exclusively similar to RAd HE. Collectively, these data represent the first ever characterization of RA-dependent hPSC-derived definitive hematopoiesis and its mesodermal progenitor. Additionally, we provide evidence for in vivo mesodermal and HE correlates for both RAi and RAd hematopoietic programs within human embryos. This novel insight into human hematopoietic development will serve as an important tool for modeling development and ultimately provide the basis for de novo specification of HSCs.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.