Intestinal stem cells (ISCs) are confined to crypt bottoms and their progeny differentiate near crypt-villus junctions. Wnt and bone morphogenic protein (BMP) gradients drive this polarity, and colorectal cancer fundamentally reflects disruption of this homeostatic signaling. However, sub-epithelial sources of crucial agonists and antagonists that organize this BMP gradient remain obscure. Here, we couple whole-mount high-resolution microscopy with ensemble and single-cell RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) to identify three distinct PDGFRA+ mesenchymal cell types. PDGFRA(hi) telocytes are especially abundant at the villus base and provide a BMP reservoir, and we identified a CD81+ PDGFRA(lo) population present just below crypts that secretes the BMP antagonist Gremlin1. These cells, referred to as trophocytes, are sufficient to expand ISCs in vitro without additional trophic support and contribute to ISC maintenance in vivo. This study reveals intestinal mesenchymal structure at fine anatomic, molecular, and functional detail and the cellular basis for a signaling gradient necessary for tissue self-renewal.
Keywords: epithelium-mesenchyme co-culture; intestinal stem cell niche; mesenchyme; niche signaling gradients; single-cell RNA profiles; telocytes; trophocytes.
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