Cell function and identity revealed by comparative scRNA-seq analysis in human nasal, bronchial and epididymis epithelia

Eur J Cell Biol. 2022 May 18;101(3):151231. doi: 10.1016/j.ejcb.2022.151231. Online ahead of print.


The evolutionary relationship of cells within tissues having a similar function but located in different anatomical sites is of considerable biological interest. The development of single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) protocols has greatly enhanced opportunities to address this topic. Here we focus on cells in the epithelium which lines two regions of the human respiratory tract and the male genital ducts to delineate the shared, differentiated functions of the different cell populations. Transcriptomic data were used to assess the gene expression profiles of human bronchial, nasal, and epididymal epithelium (HBE, HNE, and HEE). Bulk RNA-seq showed many shared genes expressed in cells from the nasal and bronchial epithelium and highlighted their divergence from the epididymal epithelium. ScRNA-seq in HBE and HNE cells demonstrated overlapping gene expression patterns within basal and secretory cell populations. Moreover, the distribution of cell types was altered in HNE cells derived from donors with cystic fibrosis (CF) when compared to cells from healthy donors. Next, the HBE and HNE datasets were merged and confirmed intersection of cell type gene expression profiles from the two sites. However, secretory and ciliated cells were the most abundant types in the HBE samples, while more basal cells were seen in the HNE populations. We then merged single-cell data from the epididymis to determine if overlapping functions of these cells corresponded to those in the airway. Of note, only the pulmonary ionocytes/epididymis clear cells showed a strongly conserved identity, which was confirmed by imputation in bulk RNA-seq datasets from the same cells.

Keywords: Bronchial; Cell fraction imputation; Cell identity; Cystic fibrosis; Epididymis; Human epithelia; Nasal; Single cell RNA-seq.