The pancreatic beta cell functions as a key regulator of blood glucose levels by integrating a variety of signals in response to changing metabolic demands. Variations in beta cell identity that translate into functionally different subpopulations represent an interesting mechanism to allow beta cells to efficiently respond to diverse physiological and pathophysiological conditions. Recently, there is emerging evidence that morphological and functional differences between beta cells exist. Furthermore, the ability of novel single cell technologies to characterize the molecular identity of individual beta cells has created a new era in the beta cell field. These studies are providing important novel information about the origin of beta cell heterogeneity, the type and proportions of the different beta cell subpopulations, as well as their intrinsic properties. Furthermore, characterization of different beta cell subpopulations that could variably offer protection from or drive progression of diabetes has important clinical implications in diabetes prevention, beta cell regeneration and stem cell treatments. In this review, we will assess the evidence that supports the existence of heterogeneous populations of beta cells and the factors that could influence their formation. We will also address novel studies using islet single cell analysis that have provided important information toward understanding beta cell heterogeneity and discuss the caveats that may be associated with these new technologies.
Keywords: beta cells; heterogeneity; pancreatic islet.