Spatial heterogeneity in the mammalian liver

Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 Jul;16(7):395-410. doi: 10.1038/s41575-019-0134-x.


Hepatocytes operate in highly structured repeating anatomical units termed liver lobules. Blood flow along the lobule radial axis creates gradients of oxygen, nutrients and hormones, which, together with morphogenetic fields, give rise to a highly variable microenvironment. In line with this spatial variability, key liver functions are expressed non-uniformly across the lobules, a phenomenon termed zonation. Technologies based on single-cell transcriptomics have constructed a global spatial map of hepatocyte gene expression in mice revealing that ~50% of hepatocyte genes are expressed in a zonated manner. This broad spatial heterogeneity suggests that hepatocytes in different lobule zones might have not only different gene expression profiles but also distinct epigenetic features, regenerative capacities, susceptibilities to damage and other functional aspects. Here, we present genomic approaches for studying liver zonation, describe the principles of liver zonation and discuss the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that dictate zonation patterns. We also explore the challenges and solutions for obtaining zonation maps of liver non-parenchymal cells. These approaches facilitate global characterization of liver function with high spatial resolution along physiological and pathological timescales.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods*
  • Genome / genetics*
  • Hepatocytes / cytology
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Liver / cytology*
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Single Molecule Imaging
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Transcriptome / genetics