Dissociation of solid tumor tissues with cold active protease for single-cell RNA-seq minimizes conserved collagenase-associated stress responses

Genome Biol. 2019 Oct 17;20(1):210. doi: 10.1186/s13059-019-1830-0.


Background: Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) is a powerful tool for studying complex biological systems, such as tumor heterogeneity and tissue microenvironments. However, the sources of technical and biological variation in primary solid tumor tissues and patient-derived mouse xenografts for scRNA-seq are not well understood.

Results: We use low temperature (6 °C) protease and collagenase (37 °C) to identify the transcriptional signatures associated with tissue dissociation across a diverse scRNA-seq dataset comprising 155,165 cells from patient cancer tissues, patient-derived breast cancer xenografts, and cancer cell lines. We observe substantial variation in standard quality control metrics of cell viability across conditions and tissues. From the contrast between tissue protease dissociation at 37 °C or 6 °C, we observe that collagenase digestion results in a stress response. We derive a core gene set of 512 heat shock and stress response genes, including FOS and JUN, induced by collagenase (37 °C), which are minimized by dissociation with a cold active protease (6 °C). While induction of these genes was highly conserved across all cell types, cell type-specific responses to collagenase digestion were observed in patient tissues.

Conclusions: The method and conditions of tumor dissociation influence cell yield and transcriptome state and are both tissue- and cell-type dependent. Interpretation of stress pathway expression differences in cancer single-cell studies, including components of surface immune recognition such as MHC class I, may be especially confounded. We define a core set of 512 genes that can assist with the identification of such effects in dissociated scRNA-seq experiments.

Keywords: Breast cancer; Gene expression; Ovarian cancer; Quality control; RNA-seq; Single cell; Tissue dissociation; Tumor microenvironment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cold Temperature
  • Collagenases
  • Genomics / methods*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Peptide Hydrolases
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA*
  • Single-Cell Analysis*
  • Stress, Physiological
  • Transcriptome


  • Peptide Hydrolases
  • Collagenases