While antenatal glucocorticoids are widely used to enhance lung function in preterm infants, cellular and molecular mechanisms by which glucocorticoid receptor (GR) signaling influences lung maturation remain poorly understood. Deletion of the glucocorticoid receptor gene (Nr3c1) from fetal pulmonary mesenchymal cells phenocopied defects caused by global Nr3c1 deletion, while lung epithelial- or endothelial-specific Nr3c1 deletion did not impair lung function at birth. We integrated genome-wide gene expression profiling, ATAC-seq, and single cell RNA-seq data in mice in which GR was deleted or activated to identify the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which glucocorticoids control prenatal lung maturation. GR enhanced differentiation of a newly defined proliferative mesenchymal progenitor cell (PMP) into matrix fibroblasts (MFBs), in part by directly activating extracellular matrix-associated target genes, including Fn1, Col16a4, and Eln and by modulating VEGF, JAK-STAT, and WNT signaling. Loss of mesenchymal GR signaling blocked fibroblast progenitor differentiation into mature MFBs, which in turn increased proliferation of SOX9+ alveolar epithelial progenitor cells and inhibited differentiation of mature alveolar type II (AT2) and AT1 cells. GR signaling controls genes required for differentiation of a subset of proliferative mesenchymal progenitors into matrix fibroblasts, in turn, regulating signals controlling AT2/AT1 progenitor cell proliferation and differentiation and identifying cells and processes by which glucocorticoid signaling regulates fetal lung maturation.
Keywords: glucocorticoid signaling; matrix fibroblast; regulatory network systems biology; single cell.