HLF expression defines the human hematopoietic stem cell state

Blood. 2021 Dec 23;138(25):2642-2654. doi: 10.1182/blood.2021010745.


Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) sustain blood cell homeostasis throughout life and can regenerate all blood lineages after transplantation. Despite this clear functional definition, highly enriched isolation of human HSCs can currently only be achieved through combinatorial assessment of multiple surface antigens. Although several transgenic HSC reporter mouse strains have been described, no analogous approach to prospectively isolate human HSCs has been reported. To identify genes with the most selective expression in human HSCs, we profiled population and single-cell transcriptomes of unexpanded and ex vivo cultured cord blood-derived hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells as well as peripheral blood, adult bone marrow, and fetal liver. On the basis of these analyses, we propose the master transcription factor HLF (hepatic leukemia factor) as one of the most specific HSC marker genes. To directly track its expression in human hematopoietic cells, we developed a genomic HLF reporter strategy, capable of selectively labeling the most immature blood cells on the basis of a single engineered parameter. Most importantly, HLF-expressing cells comprise all stem cell activity in culture and in vivo during serial transplantation. Taken together, these results experimentally establish HLF as a defining gene of the human HSC state and outline a new approach to continuously mark these cells with high fidelity.

MeSH terms

  • Basic-Leucine Zipper Transcription Factors / genetics*
  • Gene Expression*
  • Hematopoiesis
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cells / cytology
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Transcriptome*


  • Basic-Leucine Zipper Transcription Factors
  • HLF protein, human