Transcriptomic, epigenetic, and functional analyses implicate neutrophil diversity in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Dec 10;116(50):25222-25228. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1908576116. Epub 2019 Nov 21.


Neutrophil dysregulation is implicated in the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). SLE is characterized by elevated levels of a pathogenic neutrophil subset known as low-density granulocytes (LDGs). The origin and phenotypic, functional, and pathogenic heterogeneity of LDGs remain to be systematically determined. Transcriptomics and epigenetic assessment of lupus LDGs, autologous normal-density neutrophils, and healthy control neutrophils was performed by bulk and single-cell RNA sequencing and assay for transposase-accessible chromatin sequencing. Functional readouts were compared among neutrophil subsets. SLE LDGs display significant transcriptional and epigenetic heterogeneity and comprise 2 subpopulations of intermediate-mature and immature neutrophils, with different degrees of chromatin accessibility and differences in transcription factor motif analysis. Differences in neutrophil extracellular trap (NET) formation, oxidized mitochondrial DNA release, chemotaxis, phagocytosis, degranulation, ability to harm the endothelium, and responses to type I interferon (IFN) stimulation are evident among LDG subsets. Compared with other immune cell subsets, LDGs display the highest expression of IFN-inducible genes. Distinct LDG subsets correlate with specific clinical features of lupus and with the presence and severity of coronary artery disease. Phenotypic, functional, and pathogenic neutrophil heterogeneity are prevalent in SLE and may promote immune dysregulation and prominent vascular damage characteristic of this disease.

Keywords: autoimmunity; neutrophils; systemic lupus erythematosus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / metabolism
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Extracellular Traps / metabolism
  • Female
  • Granulocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Interferon Type I / genetics
  • Interferon Type I / metabolism
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / genetics*
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / metabolism
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neutrophils / metabolism*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Transcriptome


  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Interferon Type I