Building a lineage from single cells: genetic techniques for cell lineage tracking

Nat Rev Genet. 2017 Apr;18(4):230-244. doi: 10.1038/nrg.2016.159. Epub 2017 Jan 23.


Resolving lineage relationships between cells in an organism is a fundamental interest of developmental biology. Furthermore, investigating lineage can drive understanding of pathological states, including cancer, as well as understanding of developmental pathways that are amenable to manipulation by directed differentiation. Although lineage tracking through the injection of retroviral libraries has long been the state of the art, a recent explosion of methodological advances in exogenous labelling and single-cell sequencing have enabled lineage tracking at larger scales, in more detail, and in a wider range of species than was previously considered possible. In this Review, we discuss these techniques for cell lineage tracking, with attention both to those that trace lineage forwards from experimental labelling, and those that trace backwards across the life history of an organism.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics*
  • Cell Lineage / genetics*
  • Developmental Biology / methods*
  • Genetic Techniques*
  • Humans
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods*