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Metastability and Dynamics of Stem Cells: From Direct Observations to Inference at the Single Cell Level


Singer, Zakary Sean (2015) Metastability and Dynamics of Stem Cells: From Direct Observations to Inference at the Single Cell Level. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z9ST7MS1.


Organismal development, homeostasis, and pathology are rooted in inherently probabilistic events. From gene expression to cellular differentiation, rates and likelihoods shape the form and function of biology. Processes ranging from growth to cancer homeostasis to reprogramming of stem cells all require transitions between distinct phenotypic states, and these occur at defined rates. Therefore, measuring the fidelity and dynamics with which such transitions occur is central to understanding natural biological phenomena and is critical for therapeutic interventions.

While these processes may produce robust population-level behaviors, decisions are made by individual cells. In certain circumstances, these minuscule computing units effectively roll dice to determine their fate. And while the 'omics' era has provided vast amounts of data on what these populations are doing en masse, the behaviors of the underlying units of these processes get washed out in averages.

Therefore, in order to understand the behavior of a sample of cells, it is critical to reveal how its underlying components, or mixture of cells in distinct states, each contribute to the overall phenotype. As such, we must first define what states exist in the population, determine what controls the stability of these states, and measure in high dimensionality the dynamics with which these cells transition between states.

To address a specific example of this general problem, we investigate the heterogeneity and dynamics of mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs). While a number of reports have identified particular genes in ES cells that switch between 'high' and 'low' metastable expression states in culture, it remains unclear how levels of many of these regulators combine to form states in transcriptional space. Using a method called single molecule mRNA fluorescent in situ hybridization (smFISH), we quantitatively measure and fit distributions of core pluripotency regulators in single cells, identifying a wide range of variabilities between genes, but each explained by a simple model of bursty transcription. From this data, we also observed that strongly bimodal genes appear to be co-expressed, effectively limiting the occupancy of transcriptional space to two primary states across genes studied here. However, these states also appear punctuated by the conditional expression of the most highly variable genes, potentially defining smaller substates of pluripotency.

Having defined the transcriptional states, we next asked what might control their stability or persistence. Surprisingly, we found that DNA methylation, a mark normally associated with irreversible developmental progression, was itself differentially regulated between these two primary states. Furthermore, both acute or chronic inhibition of DNA methyltransferase activity led to reduced heterogeneity among the population, suggesting that metastability can be modulated by this strong epigenetic mark.

Finally, because understanding the dynamics of state transitions is fundamental to a variety of biological problems, we sought to develop a high-throughput method for the identification of cellular trajectories without the need for cell-line engineering. We achieved this by combining cell-lineage information gathered from time-lapse microscopy with endpoint smFISH for measurements of final expression states. Applying a simple mathematical framework to these lineage-tree associated expression states enables the inference of dynamic transitions. We apply our novel approach in order to infer temporal sequences of events, quantitative switching rates, and network topology among a set of ESC states.

Taken together, we identify distinct expression states in ES cells, gain fundamental insight into how a strong epigenetic modifier enforces the stability of these states, and develop and apply a new method for the identification of cellular trajectories using scalable in situ readouts of cellular state.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:dynamics; stem cells; heterogeneity; metastability
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Biology and Biological Engineering
Major Option:Computation and Neural Systems
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Elowitz, Michael B.
Thesis Committee:
  • Cai, Long (chair)
  • Elowitz, Michael B.
  • Hay, Bruce A.
  • Guttman, Mitchell
  • Plath, Kathrin
Defense Date:13 May 2015
Non-Caltech Author Email:zsinger (AT)
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05262015-152206802
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription Paper from Ch 2
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8890
Deposited By: Zakary Singer
Deposited On:05 Oct 2016 18:34
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:08

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