Caenorhabditis elegans is an animal with few cells but a wide diversity of cell types. In this study, we characterize the molecular basis for their specification by profiling the transcriptomes of 86,024 single embryonic cells. We identify 502 terminal and preterminal cell types, mapping most single-cell transcriptomes to their exact position in C. elegans' invariant lineage. Using these annotations, we find that (i) the correlation between a cell's lineage and its transcriptome increases from middle to late gastrulation, then falls substantially as cells in the nervous system and pharynx adopt their terminal fates; (ii) multilineage priming contributes to the differentiation of sister cells at dozens of lineage branches; and (iii) most distinct lineages that produce the same anatomical cell type converge to a homogenous transcriptomic state.
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