Deep sequencing reveals cell-type-specific patterns of single-cell transcriptome variation

Genome Biol. 2015 Jun 9;16(1):122. doi: 10.1186/s13059-015-0683-4.


Background: Differentiation of metazoan cells requires execution of different gene expression programs but recent single-cell transcriptome profiling has revealed considerable variation within cells of seeming identical phenotype. This brings into question the relationship between transcriptome states and cell phenotypes. Additionally, single-cell transcriptomics presents unique analysis challenges that need to be addressed to answer this question.

Results: We present high quality deep read-depth single-cell RNA sequencing for 91 cells from five mouse tissues and 18 cells from two rat tissues, along with 30 control samples of bulk RNA diluted to single-cell levels. We find that transcriptomes differ globally across tissues with regard to the number of genes expressed, the average expression patterns, and within-cell-type variation patterns. We develop methods to filter genes for reliable quantification and to calibrate biological variation. All cell types include genes with high variability in expression, in a tissue-specific manner. We also find evidence that single-cell variability of neuronal genes in mice is correlated with that in rats consistent with the hypothesis that levels of variation may be conserved.

Conclusions: Single-cell RNA-sequencing data provide a unique view of transcriptome function; however, careful analysis is required in order to use single-cell RNA-sequencing measurements for this purpose. Technical variation must be considered in single-cell RNA-sequencing studies of expression variation. For a subset of genes, biological variability within each cell type appears to be regulated in order to perform dynamic functions, rather than solely molecular noise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Genetic Variation*
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • RNA Stability
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Transcriptome*