A closer look

The different pigment levels seen when growing retinal pigment epithelial cells in the laboratory are not linked to differences in gene expression.

Image credit: v2osk via Unsplash (CC0)

The backs of our eyes are lined with retinal pigment epithelial cells (or RPE cells for short). These cells provide nutrition to surrounding cells and contain a pigment called melanin that absorbs excess light that might interfere with vision. By doing so, they support the cells that receive light to enable vision. However, with age, RPE cells can become damaged and less able to support other cells. This can lead to a disease called age-related macular degeneration, which can cause blindness.

One potential way to treat this disease is to transplant healthy RPE cells into eyes that have lost them. These healthy cells can be grown in the laboratory from human pluripotent stem cells, which have the capacity to turn into various specialist cells. Stem cell-derived RPE cells growing in a dish contain varying amounts of melanin, resulting in some being darker than others. This raised the question of whether pigment levels affect the function of RPE cells. However, it was difficult to compare single cells containing various amounts of pigment as most previous studies only analyzed large numbers of RPE cells mixed together.

Nakai-Futatsugi et al. overcame this hurdle using a technique called Automated Live imaging and cell Picking System (also known as ALPS). More than 2300 stem cell-derived RPE cells were photographed individually and the color of each cell was recorded. The gene expression of each cell was then measured to investigate whether certain genes being switched on or off affects pigment levels and cell function.

Analysis did not find a consistent pattern of gene expression underlying the pigmentation of RPE cells. Even gene expression related to the production of melanin was only slightly linked to the color of the cells. These findings suggests that the RPE cell color fluctuates and is not primarily determined by which genes are switched on or off. Future experiments are required to determine whether the findings are the same for RPE cells grown naturally in the eyes and whether different pigment levels affect their capacity to protect the rest of the eye.