Harnessing Expressed Single Nucleotide Variation and Single Cell RNA Sequencing To Define Immune Cell Chimerism in the Rejecting Kidney Transplant

J Am Soc Nephrol. 2020 Sep;31(9):1977-1986. doi: 10.1681/ASN.2020030326. Epub 2020 Jul 15.


Background: In solid organ transplantation, donor-derived immune cells are assumed to decline with time after surgery. Whether donor leukocytes persist within kidney transplants or play any role in rejection is unknown, however, in part because of limited techniques for distinguishing recipient from donor cells.

Methods: Whole-exome sequencing of donor and recipient DNA and single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) of five human kidney transplant biopsy cores distinguished immune cell contributions from both participants. DNA-sequence comparisons used single nucleotide variants (SNVs) identified in the exome sequences across all samples.

Results: Analysis of expressed SNVs in the scRNA-seq data set distinguished recipient versus donor origin for all 81,139 cells examined. The leukocyte donor/recipient ratio varied with rejection status for macrophages and with time post-transplant for lymphocytes. Recipient macrophages displayed inflammatory activation whereas donor macrophages demonstrated antigen presentation and complement signaling. Recipient-origin T cells expressed cytotoxic and proinflammatory genes consistent with an effector cell phenotype, whereas donor-origin T cells appeared quiescent, expressing oxidative phosphorylation genes. Finally, both donor and recipient T cell clones within the rejecting kidney suggested lymphoid aggregation. The results indicate that donor-origin macrophages and T cells have distinct transcriptional profiles compared with their recipient counterparts, and that donor macrophages can persist for years post-transplantation.

Conclusions: Analysis of single nucleotide variants and their expression in single cells provides a powerful novel approach to accurately define leukocyte chimerism in a complex organ such as a transplanted kidney, coupled with the ability to examine transcriptional profiles at single-cell resolution.

Keywords: gene expression; transcriptional profiling; transplantation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chimerism
  • Genetic Variation
  • Graft Rejection / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Kidney Transplantation / adverse effects*
  • Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology*
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA*
  • Single-Cell Analysis*
  • Tissue Donors
  • Transplantation, Homologous