On the origin and impact of mesenchymal stem cell heterogeneity: new insights and emerging tools for single cell analysis

Eur Cell Mater. 2017 Oct 27;34:217-231. doi: 10.22203/eCM.v034a14.


Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) display substantial cell-to-cell variation. This heterogeneity manifests among donors, among tissue sources, and within cell populations. Such pervasive variability complicates the use of MSCs in regenerative applications and may limit their therapeutic efficacy. Most conventional assays measure MSC properties in bulk and, as a consequence, mask this cell-to-cell variation. Recent studies have identified extensive variability amongst and within clonal MSC populations, in dimensions including functional differentiation capacity, molecular state (e.g. epigenetic, transcriptomic, and proteomic status), and biophysical properties. While the origins of these variations remain to be elucidated, potential mechanisms include in vivo micro-anatomical heterogeneity, epigenetic bistability, and transcriptional fluctuations. Emerging tools for single cell analysis of MSC gene and protein expression may yield further insight into the mechanisms and implications of single cell variation amongst these cells, and ultimately improve the clinical utility of MSCs in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications. This review outlines the dimensions across which MSC heterogeneity is present, defines some of the known mechanisms that govern this heterogeneity, and highlights emerging technologies that may further refine our understanding and improve our clinical application of this unique cell type.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Cellular Microenvironment*
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods
  • Humans
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Proteomics / methods
  • Regenerative Medicine / methods
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods*
  • Tissue Engineering / methods