Background & aims: The intestinal epithelium is maintained by intestinal stem cells (ISCs), which produce postmitotic absorptive and secretory epithelial cells. Initial fate specification toward enteroendocrine, goblet, and Paneth cell lineages requires the transcription factor Atoh1, which regulates differentiation of the secretory cell lineage. However, less is known about the origin of tuft cells, which participate in type II immune responses to parasite infections and appear to differentiate independently of Atoh1. We investigated the role of Sox4 in ISC differentiation.
Methods: We performed experiments in mice with intestinal epithelial-specific disruption of Sox4 (Sox4fl/fl:vilCre; SOX4 conditional knockout [cKO]) and mice without disruption of Sox4 (control mice). Crypt- and single-cell-derived organoids were used in assays to measure proliferation and ISC potency. Lineage allocation and gene expression changes were studied by immunofluorescence, real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction, and RNA-seq analyses. Intestinal organoids were incubated with the type 2 cytokine interleukin 13 and gene expression was analyzed. Mice were infected with the helminth Nippostrongylus brasiliensis and intestinal tissues were collected 7 days later for analysis. Intestinal tissues collected from mice that express green fluorescent protein regulated by the Atoh1 promoter (Atoh1GFP mice) and single-cell RNA-seq analysis were used to identify cells that coexpress Sox4 and Atoh1. We generated SOX4-inducible intestinal organoids derived from Atoh1fl/fl:vilCreER (ATOH1 inducible knockout) mice and assessed differentiation.
Results: Sox4cKO mice had impaired ISC function and secretory differentiation, resulting in decreased numbers of tuft and enteroendocrine cells. In control mice, numbers of SOX4+ cells increased significantly after helminth infection, coincident with tuft cell hyperplasia. Sox4 was activated by interleukin 13 in control organoids; SOX4cKO mice had impaired tuft cell hyperplasia and parasite clearance after infection with helminths. In single-cell RNA-seq analysis, Sox4+/Atoh1- cells were enriched for ISC, progenitor, and tuft cell genes; 12.5% of Sox4-expressing cells coexpressed Atoh1 and were enriched for enteroendocrine genes. In organoids, overexpression of Sox4 was sufficient to induce differentiation of tuft and enteroendocrine cells-even in the absence of Atoh1.
Conclusions: We found Sox4 promoted tuft and enteroendocrine cell lineage allocation independently of Atoh1. These results challenge the longstanding model in which Atoh1 is the sole regulator of secretory differentiation in the intestine and are relevant for understanding epithelial responses to parasitic infection.
Keywords: Differentiation; Intestinal Crypt; Stem Cell; Transcriptional Regulation.
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