Single-cell RNA sequencing of the retina in a model of retinitis pigmentosa reveals early responses to degeneration in rods and cones

BMC Biol. 2022 Apr 12;20(1):86. doi: 10.1186/s12915-022-01280-9.


Background: In inherited retinal disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP), rod photoreceptor-specific mutations cause primary rod degeneration that is followed by secondary cone death and loss of high-acuity vision. Mechanistic studies of retinal degeneration are challenging because of retinal heterogeneity. Moreover, the detection of early cone responses to rod death is especially difficult due to the paucity of cones in the retina. To resolve heterogeneity in the degenerating retina and investigate events in both types of photoreceptors during primary rod degeneration, we utilized droplet-based single-cell RNA sequencing in an RP mouse model, rd10.

Results: Using trajectory analysis, we defined two consecutive phases of rod degeneration at P21, characterized by the early transient upregulation of Egr1 and the later induction of Cebpd. EGR1 was the transcription factor most significantly associated with the promoters of differentially regulated genes in Egr1-positive rods in silico. Silencing Egr1 affected the expression levels of two of these genes in vitro. Degenerating rods exhibited changes associated with metabolism, neuroprotection, and modifications to synapses and microtubules. Egr1 was also the most strongly upregulated transcript in cones. Its upregulation in cones accompanied potential early respiratory dysfunction and changes in signaling pathways. The expression pattern of EGR1 in the retina was dynamic during degeneration, with a transient increase of EGR1 immunoreactivity in both rods and cones during the early stages of their degenerative processes.

Conclusion: Our results identify early and late changes in degenerating rd10 rod photoreceptors and reveal early responses to rod degeneration in cones not expressing the disease-causing mutation, pointing to mechanisms relevant for secondary cone degeneration. In addition, our data implicate EGR1 as a potential key regulator of early degenerative events in rods and cones, providing a potential broad target for modulating photoreceptor degeneration.

Keywords: Photoreceptors; Retina; Retinal degeneration; Retinitis pigmentosa; Single-cell RNA sequencing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Mice
  • Retina / metabolism
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Retinal Rod Photoreceptor Cells* / metabolism
  • Retinitis Pigmentosa* / genetics
  • Retinitis Pigmentosa* / metabolism
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA