Environment Tunes Propagation of Cell-to-Cell Variation in the Human Macrophage Gene Network

Cell Syst. 2017 Apr 26;4(4):379-392.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.cels.2017.03.002. Epub 2017 Mar 29.


Cell-to-cell variation in gene expression and the propagation of such variation (PoV or "noise propagation") from one gene to another in the gene network, as reflected by gene-gene correlation across single cells, are commonly observed in single-cell transcriptomic studies and can shape the phenotypic diversity of cell populations. While gene network "rewiring" is known to accompany cellular adaptation to different environments, how PoV changes between environments and its underlying regulatory mechanisms are less understood. Here, we systematically explored context-dependent PoV among genes in human macrophages, utilizing different cytokines as natural perturbations of multiple molecular parameters that may influence PoV. Our single-cell, epigenomic, computational, and stochastic simulation analyses reveal that environmental adaptation can tune PoV to potentially shape cellular heterogeneity by changing parameters such as the degree of phosphorylation and transcription factor-chromatin interactions. This quantitative tuning of PoV may be a widespread, yet underexplored, property of cellular adaptation to distinct environments.

Keywords: IL-10; environmental perturbations; gene-gene correlations across single cells; macrophage activation; network rewiring and differential gene network analysis; noise propagation; propagation of cell-to-cell variation; single-cell genomics; stochastic modeling; transcription factor activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Gene Expression
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-10 / genetics
  • Interleukin-10 / metabolism
  • Interleukin-10 / physiology
  • Macrophages / physiology*
  • Stochastic Processes


  • Interleukin-10