Single-Cell RNA Sequencing Reveals More Clues for Hair Cell Regeneration

By Mark E. Lush, Ph.D., and Daniel C. Diaz

Sensorineural hearing loss in mammals can often be attributed to damage or destruction of the delicate hair cells located within the inner ear. The microscopic hairlike projections on the surface of these cells are the key structure responsible for converting sound waves to electrical signals that travel to the brain through the auditory nerve. Unlike mammals, other vertebrates such as fish, birds, and reptiles routinely regenerate sensory hair cells during homeostasis and following injury. By studying the genetic program of hair cell regeneration in nonmammalian vertebrate organisms, researchers may discover therapeutic targets for treating hearing loss in humans.

The lateral line is a sensory system that allows aquatic vertebrates to orient themselves by detecting water motion. The lateral line organs (neuromasts), distributed on the head and along the body, contain approximately 60 cells, composed of central sensory hair cells surrounded by support cells and an outer ring of mantle cells. Using single-cell RNA sequencing, we combined some of the less well-defined clusters and identified major neuromast cell types, shown in this illustration, ranging from support cells to mature sensory hair cells. Credit: The lab of Tatiana Piotrowski, Ph.D., Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City

The lateral line is a sensory system that allows aquatic vertebrates to orient themselves by detecting water motion. The lateral line organs (neuromasts), distributed on the head and along the body, contain approximately 60 cells, composed of central sensory hair cells surrounded by support cells and an outer ring of mantle cells. Using single-cell RNA sequencing, we combined some of the less well-defined clusters and identified major neuromast cell types, shown in this illustration, ranging from support cells to mature sensory hair cells. Credit: The lab of Tatiana Piotrowski, Ph.D., Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City

One such organism, the zebrafish, has emerged as a powerful model for studying sensory hair cell regeneration. Like other fish, zebrafish contain a network of sensory hair cells throughout their body to detect changes in water movement. The hair cells are located in small organs in the skin called neuromasts, which also contains cell types that are remarkably similar to those found in the mammalian inner ear. To study the genetic program of hair cell regeneration in zebrafish, we sequenced the RNA of individual cells within neuromasts, allowing us to classify cell types based on their gene expression signature. This included cells transitioning from support cells to fully mature sensory hair cells, thereby identifying new genes that are expressed during hair cell development. In addition, we characterized the role of the growth factor fgf3, and found that it acts to inhibit hair cell progenitor proliferation. Our results were published in the journal eLife on Jan. 25, 2019. Future work will examine the function of these genes in sensory hair cell regeneration.

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Mark E. Lush, Ph.D., and Daniel C. Diaz both work in the lab of Tatjana Piotrowski, Ph.D., at Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City. Piotrowski is a member of the Hearing Restoration Project, which helped fund this study.

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