Epithelial cell plasticity: breaking boundaries and changing landscapes

EMBO Rep. 2021 Jul 5;22(7):e51921. doi: 10.15252/embr.202051921. Epub 2021 Jun 6.


Epithelial tissues respond to a wide variety of environmental and genotoxic stresses. As an adaptive mechanism, cells can deviate from their natural paths to acquire new identities, both within and across lineages. Under extreme conditions, epithelial tissues can utilize "shape-shifting" mechanisms whereby they alter their form and function at a tissue-wide scale. Mounting evidence suggests that in order to acquire these alternate tissue identities, cells follow a core set of "tissue logic" principles based on developmental paradigms. Here, we review the terminology and the concepts that have been put forward to describe cell plasticity. We also provide insights into various cell intrinsic and extrinsic factors, including genetic mutations, inflammation, microbiota, and therapeutic agents that contribute to cell plasticity. Additionally, we discuss recent studies that have sought to decode the "syntax" of plasticity-i.e., the cellular and molecular principles through which cells acquire new identities in both homeostatic and malignant epithelial tissues-and how these processes can be manipulated for developing novel cancer therapeutics.

Keywords: cell plasticity; metaplasia; nearest developmental neighbor; transdifferentiation; transitional zones.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Plasticity*
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Inflammation
  • Neoplasms* / genetics