Beta cell heterogeneity: an evolving concept

Diabetologia. 2017 Aug;60(8):1363-1369. doi: 10.1007/s00125-017-4326-z. Epub 2017 Jun 8.


Beta cells are primarily defined by their ability to produce insulin and secrete it in response to appropriate stimuli. It has been known for some time, however, that beta cells are not functionally identical to each other and that the rates of insulin synthesis and release differ from cell to cell, although the functional significance of this variability remains unclear. Recent studies have used heterogeneous gene expression to isolate and evaluate different subpopulations of beta cells and to demonstrate alterations in these subpopulations in diabetes. In the last few years, novel technologies have emerged that permit the detailed evaluation of the proteome (e.g. time-of-flight mass spectroscopy, [CyTOF]) and transcriptome (e.g. massively parallel RNA sequencing) at the single-cell level, and tools for single beta cell metabolomics and epigenomics are quickly maturing. The first wave of single beta cell proteome and transcriptome studies were published in 2016, giving a glimpse into the power, but also the limitations, of these approaches. Despite this progress, it remains unclear if the observed heterogeneity of beta cells represents stable, distinct beta cell types or, alternatively, highly dynamic beta cell states. Here we provide a concise overview of recent developments in the emerging field of beta cell heterogeneity and the implications for our understanding of beta cell biology and pathology.

Keywords: Beta cells; Cellular heterogeneity; Diabetes; Islets of Langerhans; Pancreas; Review; Single-cell proteomics; Single-cell transcriptomics; Transcriptional plasticity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Diabetes Mellitus / metabolism*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / pathology*
  • Epigenomics
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / metabolism*
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / pathology
  • Proteomics