Single-Cell Analysis Reveals Unexpected Cellular Changes and Transposon Expression Signatures in the Colonic Epithelium of Treatment-Naïve Adult Crohn's Disease Patients

Cell Mol Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2022;13(6):1717-1740. doi: 10.1016/j.jcmgh.2022.02.005. Epub 2022 Feb 12.


Background & aims: The intestinal barrier comprises a monolayer of specialized intestinal epithelial cells (IECs) that are critical in maintaining mucosal homeostasis. Dysfunction within various IEC fractions can alter intestinal permeability in a genetically susceptible host, resulting in a chronic and debilitating condition known as Crohn's disease (CD). Defining the molecular changes in each IEC type in CD will contribute to an improved understanding of the pathogenic processes and the identification of cell type-specific therapeutic targets. We performed, at single-cell resolution, a direct comparison of the colonic epithelial cellular and molecular landscape between treatment-naïve adult CD and non-inflammatory bowel disease control patients.

Methods: Colonic epithelial-enriched, single-cell sequencing from treatment-naïve adult CD and non-inflammatory bowel disease patients was investigated to identify disease-induced differences in IEC types.

Results: Our analysis showed that in CD patients there is a significant skew in the colonic epithelial cellular distribution away from canonical LGR5+ stem cells, located at the crypt bottom, and toward one specific subtype of mature colonocytes, located at the crypt top. Further analysis showed unique changes to gene expression programs in every major cell type, including a previously undescribed suppression in CD of most enteroendocrine driver genes as well as L-cell markers including GCG. We also dissect an incompletely understood SPIB+ cell cluster, revealing at least 4 subclusters that likely represent different stages of a maturational trajectory. One of these SPIB+ subclusters expresses crypt-top colonocyte markers and is up-regulated significantly in CD, whereas another subcluster strongly expresses and stains positive for lysozyme (albeit no other canonical Paneth cell marker), which surprisingly is greatly reduced in expression in CD. In addition, we also discovered transposable element markers of colonic epithelial cell types as well as transposable element families that are altered significantly in CD in a cell type-specific manner. Finally, through integration with data from genome-wide association studies, we show that genes implicated in CD risk show heretofore unknown cell type-specific patterns of aberrant expression in CD, providing unprecedented insight into the potential biological functions of these genes.

Conclusions: Single-cell analysis shows a number of unexpected cellular and molecular features, including transposable element expression signatures, in the colonic epithelium of treatment-naïve adult CD.

Keywords: BEST4; Colonocyte; Crohn’s Disease; Epithelium; Gene Expression; Genome-Wide Association Study; ISC; LGR5; SPIB; Single-Cell; Transposable Element.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Crohn Disease* / pathology
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Epithelium / pathology
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Paneth Cells / metabolism
  • Single-Cell Analysis


  • DNA Transposable Elements