Different Flavors of Astrocytes: Revising the Origins of Astrocyte Diversity and Epigenetic Signatures to Understand Heterogeneity after Injury

Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Jun 26;22(13):6867. doi: 10.3390/ijms22136867.


Astrocytes are a specific type of neuroglial cells that confer metabolic and structural support to neurons. Astrocytes populate all regions of the nervous system and adopt a variety of phenotypes depending on their location and their respective functions, which are also pleiotropic in nature. For example, astrocytes adapt to pathological conditions with a specific cellular response known as reactive astrogliosis, which includes extensive phenotypic and transcriptional changes. Reactive astrocytes may lose some of their homeostatic functions and gain protective or detrimental properties with great impact on damage propagation. Different astrocyte subpopulations seemingly coexist in reactive astrogliosis, however, the source of such heterogeneity is not completely understood. Altered cellular signaling in pathological compared to healthy conditions might be one source fueling astrocyte heterogeneity. Moreover, diversity might also be encoded cell-autonomously, for example as a result of astrocyte subtype specification during development. We hypothesize and propose here that elucidating the epigenetic signature underlying the phenotype of each astrocyte subtype is of high relevance to understand another regulative layer of astrocyte heterogeneity, in general as well as after injury or as a result of other pathological conditions. High resolution methods should allow enlightening diverse cell states and subtypes of astrocyte, their adaptation to pathological conditions and ultimately allow controlling and manipulating astrocyte functions in disease states. Here, we review novel literature reporting on astrocyte diversity from a developmental perspective and we focus on epigenetic signatures that might account for cell type specification.

Keywords: astrocyte differentiation; astrocyte diversity; astrocyte heterogeneity; epigenetic mechanisms; reactive astrogliosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / cytology
  • Astrocytes / metabolism*
  • Astrocytes / pathology
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Gliosis / genetics*
  • Gliosis / metabolism
  • Humans