Combined multidimensional single-cell protein and RNA profiling dissects the cellular and functional heterogeneity of thymic epithelial cells
Klein F., Veiga-Villauriz C., Börsch A., Maio S., Palmer S., Dhalla F., Handel AE., Zuklys S., Calvo-Asensio I., Musette L., Deadman ME., White AJ., Lucas B., Anderson G., Holländer GA.
The network of thymic stromal cells provides essential niches with unique molecular cues controlling T cell development and selection. Recent single-cell RNA sequencing studies have uncovered previously unappreciated transcriptional heterogeneity among thymic epithelial cells (TEC). However, there are only very few cell markers that allow a comparable phenotypic identification of TEC. Here, using massively parallel flow cytometry and machine learning, we deconvoluted known TEC phenotypes into novel subpopulations. Using CITEseq, these phenotypes were related to corresponding TEC subtypes defined by the cells' RNA profiles. This approach allowed the phenotypic identification of perinatal cTEC and their physical localisation within the cortical stromal scaffold. In addition, we demonstrate the dynamic change in the frequency of perinatal cTEC in response to developing thymocytes and reveal their exceptional efficiency in positive selection. Collectively, our study identifies markers that allow for an unprecedented dissection of the thymus stromal complexity, as well as physical isolation of TEC populations and assignment of specific functions to individual TEC subtypes.