Letter | Published:

Single-cell transcriptomics reconstructs fate conversion from fibroblast to cardiomyocyte

Nature volume 551, pages 100104 (02 November 2017) | Download Citation


Direct lineage conversion offers a new strategy for tissue regeneration and disease modelling. Despite recent success in directly reprogramming fibroblasts into various cell types, the precise changes that occur as fibroblasts progressively convert to the target cell fates remain unclear. The inherent heterogeneity and asynchronous nature of the reprogramming process renders it difficult to study this process using bulk genomic techniques. Here we used single-cell RNA sequencing to overcome this limitation and analysed global transcriptome changes at early stages during the reprogramming of mouse fibroblasts into induced cardiomyocytes (iCMs)1,2,3,4. Using unsupervised dimensionality reduction and clustering algorithms, we identified molecularly distinct subpopulations of cells during reprogramming. We also constructed routes of iCM formation, and delineated the relationship between cell proliferation and iCM induction. Further analysis of global gene expression changes during reprogramming revealed unexpected downregulation of factors involved in mRNA processing and splicing. Detailed functional analysis of the top candidate splicing factor, Ptbp1, revealed that it is a critical barrier for the acquisition of cardiomyocyte-specific splicing patterns in fibroblasts. Concomitantly, Ptbp1 depletion promoted cardiac transcriptome acquisition and increased iCM reprogramming efficiency. Additional quantitative analysis of our dataset revealed a strong correlation between the expression of each reprogramming factor and the progress of individual cells through the reprogramming process, and led to the discovery of new surface markers for the enrichment of iCMs. In summary, our single-cell transcriptomics approaches enabled us to reconstruct the reprogramming trajectory and to uncover intermediate cell populations, gene pathways and regulators involved in iCM induction.

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We thank UNC AAC Core, HTSF Core, Flow Core for technical support. This study was supported by NIH HG06272 to J.F.P., NIH BD2K Fellowship (T32 CA201159) and NIH F31 Fellowship (HG008912) to J.D.W., NIH/NHLBI R00 HL109079 and American Heart Association (AHA) 15GRNT25530005 to J.L., AHA 13SDG17060010, Ellison Medical Foundation (EMF) AG-NS-1064-13, and NIH/NHLBI R01HL128331 to L.Q., and gifts from H. McAllister and C. Sewell.

Author information

Author notes

    • Ziqing Liu
    • , Li Wang
    •  & Joshua D. Welch

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. McAllister Heart Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599, USA.

    • Ziqing Liu
    • , Li Wang
    • , Hong Ma
    • , Yang Zhou
    • , Haley Ruth Vaseghi
    • , Shuo Yu
    • , Joseph Blake Wall
    • , Sahar Alimohamadi
    • , Michael Zheng
    • , Chaoying Yin
    • , Jiandong Liu
    •  & Li Qian
  2. Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599, USA

    • Ziqing Liu
    • , Li Wang
    • , Hong Ma
    • , Yang Zhou
    • , Haley Ruth Vaseghi
    • , Shuo Yu
    • , Joseph Blake Wall
    • , Sahar Alimohamadi
    • , Michael Zheng
    • , Chaoying Yin
    • , Jiandong Liu
    •  & Li Qian
  3. Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599, USA

    • Joshua D. Welch
    •  & Jan F. Prins
  4. Department of Statistics, University of California at Irvine, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • Weining Shen


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L.Q., Z.L. and L.W. conceived and designed the study. Z.L. and L.W. designed and performed single-cell RNA-seq. Z.L., L.W., Y.Z. and C.Y. prepared samples for microarray and bulk RNA-seq. L.W., Y.Z., H.M., H.R.V., C.Y., S.Y., J.B.W., S.A. and M.Z. performed other experiments. Z.L., J.D.W. and J.F.P. performed data analysis and modelling. W.S. helped with statistical analysis. Z.L, J.D.W., J.L. and L.Q. wrote the manuscript, with extensive input from all authors. J.L. and L.Q. provided funding and overall supervision.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jiandong Liu or Li Qian.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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    This file contains Supplementary Discussions 1-3 and Supplementary Figure 1, the raw images of the western blots.

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