Longitudinal Single-Cell Dynamics of Chromatin Accessibility and Mitochondrial Mutations in Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Mirror Disease History

Cancer Discov. 2021 Dec 1;11(12):3048-3063. doi: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-21-0276.


While cancers evolve during disease progression and in response to therapy, temporal dynamics remain difficult to study in humans due to the lack of consistent barcodes marking individual clones in vivo. We employ mitochondrial single-cell assay for transposase-accessible chromatin with sequencing to profile 163,279 cells from 9 patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) collected across disease course and utilize mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) mutations as natural genetic markers of cancer clones. We observe stable propagation of mtDNA mutations over years in the absence of strong selective pressure, indicating clonal persistence, but dramatic changes following tight bottlenecks, including disease transformation and relapse posttherapy, paralleled by acquisition of copy-number variants and changes in chromatin accessibility and gene expression. Furthermore, we link CLL subclones to distinct chromatin states, providing insight into nongenetic sources of relapse. mtDNA mutations thus mirror disease history and provide naturally occurring genetic barcodes to enable patient-specific study of cancer subclonal dynamics.

Significance: Single-cell multi-omic profiling of CLL reveals the utility of somatic mtDNA mutations as in vivo barcodes, which mark subclones that can evolve over time along with changes in accessible chromatin and gene expression profiles to capture dynamics of disease evolution. See related commentary by Hilton and Scott, p. 2965. This article is highlighted in the In This Issue feature, p. 2945.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Chromatin / genetics
  • Clonal Evolution / genetics
  • Clone Cells
  • DNA Copy Number Variations
  • Humans
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell* / genetics
  • Mutation


  • Chromatin