The elephant in the lung: Integrating lineage-tracing, molecular markers, and single cell sequencing data to identify distinct fibroblast populations during lung development and regeneration

Matrix Biol. 2020 Sep;91-92:51-74. doi: 10.1016/j.matbio.2020.05.002. Epub 2020 May 19.


During lung development, the mesenchyme and epithelium are dependent on each other for instructive morphogenic cues that direct proliferation, cellular differentiation and organogenesis. Specification of epithelial and mesenchymal cell lineages occurs in parallel, forming cellular subtypes that guide the formation of both transitional developmental structures and the permanent architecture of the adult lung. While epithelial cell types and lineages have been relatively well-defined in recent years, the definition of mesenchymal cell types and lineage relationships has been more challenging. Transgenic mouse lines with permanent and inducible lineage tracers have been instrumental in identifying lineage relationships among epithelial progenitor cells and their differentiation into distinct airway and alveolar epithelial cells. Lineage tracing experiments with reporter mice used to identify fibroblast progenitors and their lineage trajectories have been limited by the number of cell specific genes and the developmental timepoint when the lineage trace was activated. In this review, we discuss major developmental mesenchymal lineages, focusing on time of origin, major cell type, and other lineage derivatives, as well as the transgenic tools used to find and define them. We describe lung fibroblasts using function, location, and molecular markers in order to compare and contrast cells with similar functions. The temporal and cell-type specific expression of fourteen "fibroblast lineage" genes were identified in single-cell RNA-sequencing data from LungMAP in the LGEA database. Using these lineage signature genes as guides, we clustered murine lung fibroblast populations from embryonic day 16.5 to postnatal day 28 (E16.5-PN28) and generated heatmaps to illustrate expression of transcription factors, signaling receptors and ligands in a temporal and population specific manner.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Lineage / genetics
  • Cell Tracking / methods
  • Cytokines / genetics
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Embryo, Mammalian
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Extracellular Matrix Proteins / genetics*
  • Extracellular Matrix Proteins / metabolism
  • Fibroblasts / cytology*
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Lung / cytology*
  • Lung / growth & development
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Mesoderm / cytology*
  • Mesoderm / growth & development
  • Mesoderm / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Organogenesis / genetics
  • Regeneration / genetics
  • Signal Transduction


  • Cytokines
  • Extracellular Matrix Proteins