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Animals begin life as a single cell that then divides to become a complex organism with many different types of cells. Every time a cell divides, each of its two daughter cells can either stay the same type as their parent or adopt a different identity. Once a cell acquires an identity, it usually cannot ‘go back’ and choose another. Eventually, this process will produce daughter cells with the identity of a specific tissue or organ and that cannot divide further.
Multipotent cells are cells that can produce daughter cells with different identities, including other multipotent cells. These cells can usually give rise to different cell types in a specific organ, and generate more cells to replace any cells that die in that organ. Tracking the cells descended from a multipotent cell in a specific tissue can provide information about how the tissue develops.
Hemogenic endothelium cells produce the multipotent cells that give rise to two types of white blood cells: myeloid cells and lymphoid cells. Myeloid cells include innate immune cells that protect the body from infection non-specifically; while lymphoid cells include T cells and B cells with receptors that detect specific bacteria or viruses. It remains unclear whether each of these two cell types originate from a single population of hemogenic endothelium cells or from two distinct subpopulations.
He et al. have now developed a new optical technique to label a single hemogenic endothelium cell in a zebrafish and track the cell and its descendants. This method revealed that there are at least two distinct populations of hemogenic endothelium cells. One of them can give rise to both lymphoid and myeloid cells, while the other can only give rise to myeloid cells.
These findings shed light on the mechanisms of blood formation, and potentially could provide useful tools to study the development of diseases such as leukemia. Additionally, the single-cell labeling technology He et al. have developed could be applied to study the development of other tissues and organs.