By performing meta-analyses of various datasets describing global gene expression of mouse spleen and human blood leukocyte subsets, we have been able to identify for the first time conserved genetic programs common to human and mouse LN-DC subsets. All the LN-DC subsets examined here are shown to share selective expression of several genes, while harboring only low levels of other transcripts present in all other leukocytes. These analyses indicate that LN-DCs, including pDCs, constitute a specific family of leukocytes, distinct from those of classic lymphoid or myeloid cells. Furthermore, we demonstrate a striking genetic proximity between mouse and human pDCs, which are shown for the first time to harbor a very distinct transcriptional signature as large and specific as that observed for NK cells or T cells. In contrast, a higher genetic distance is observed between mouse and human conventional DC subsets, although a partial functional equivalence is suggested between mCD8α and hBDCA3 cDCs on the one hand versus mCD11b and hBDCA1 cDCs on the other hand.
Our finding that LN-DCs constitute a distinct entity within immune cells raises the question of whether these cells form a distinct lineage in terms of ontogeny, or whether their shared gene expression profile (notably that between cDCs and pDCs) reflects a functional rather than a developmental similarity. To date, the place of both cDCs and pDCs in the hematopoietic tree is not clear [78
]. A BM progenitor, named macrophage and dendritic cell progenitor (MDP), has been recently identified that specifically gives rise to monocytes/macrophages and to cDCs, but not to polymorphonuclear cells or to lymphoïd cells [80
]. Under the experimental conditions used in the corresponding report, pDCs were not detected in the progeny of MDPs. Here, we show that the transcriptome programs of mouse spleen and human blood cDCs exhibit only a very limited overlap with that of monocytes/macrophages (Figure ). This is consistent with the recent observation that monocytes can give rise to mucosal, but not splenic, cDCs, suggesting that splenic cDCs develop from MDPs without a monocytic intermediate [81
]. While mouse pDCs have been argued to arise from both lymphoid or myeloid progenitors, their gene expression overlaps with lymphoid or myeloid cells are limited. Interestingly, a murine progenitor cell line that exhibits both cDC and pDC differentiation potential has been described recently [82
], suggesting that putative pan-DC progenitors might also exist in vivo
, which would be consistent with the gene profiling analyses presented here.
Our study identifies transcriptional signatures conserved between mouse and human, common to all LN-DC subsets examined, or specific to pDCs, cDCs, or individual cDC subsets. A genetic equivalence is suggested between mouse CD8α cDCs and human BDCA3 cDCs, and between mouse CD11b cDCs and human BDCA1 cDCs. In contrast to the genes selectively expressed in subsets of myeloid or lymphoid cells in a conserved manner between mouse and human, most of the genes specifically increased in all LN-DC subsets or in individual LN-DC subsets are currently uncharacterized. As a consequence, the functional annotations of the LN-DC transcriptional signatures appear much less informative than those for myeloid cells, lymphocytes or APCs. This highlights how much has already been deciphered regarding the molecular regulation of antigen presentation or lymphocyte biology, as opposed to how little we know about the genetic programs that determine the specific features of LN-DCs. We believe that our study provides a unique database resource for future investigation of the evolutionarily conserved molecular pathways governing specific aspects of the ontogeny and functions of leukocyte subsets, especially DCs.
It should be noted that many genes are found to be expressed to very high levels in specific subsets of either mouse or man while no orthologous gene has been identified in the other species. This could be due to a true absence of orthologous genes between these two vertebrate species, or to a lack of identification of an existing orthology relationship. It is also possible that some of the genes expressed only in mouse DCs or only in human DCs, and not conserved between the two species, might represent functional homologs, similar to what is observed for human KIR and mouse Ly49 NK cell receptors. This may be the case for the human LILRA4 (ILT7) and the mouse SIGLECH molecules, as both of them signal through immunoreceptor tyrosine-based activation motif (ITAM)-bearing adaptors to downmodulate IFN-α/β production by human and mouse pDCs, respectively, upon triggering of TLRs [83
]. Thus, understanding the role in LN-DCs of genes identified here only in mouse or human might be important. The transcriptional signatures identified for mouse LN-DC subsets in this study have been confirmed by analyses of independent data recently published by others on mouse cDC subsets, B cells and T cells [11
] or on cDCs and pDCs [15
]. Most of the data for the mouse 430 2.0 compendium were generated in-house, with the exceptions being CD4 T cells and myeloid cells. In humans, we generated the data for non-DC populations, whereas data for DC subsets and CD16 cells were all generated by another group and retrieved from a public database. It is well known that datasets for the same cell type can vary considerably between laboratories. However, many of the genes identified as specific for each mouse LN-DC subset using our own data were confirmed by the analysis of other data independently generated by the groups of M Nussenzweig and R Steinman [11
]. These data are given in Additional data file 5.
Our clustering analyses and PCA also showed relatively little dataset-dependent biases, and generally grouped related cell populations together, even if they were from different origins (see, for instance, the PCA clustering of in vitro derived GM-CSF DC samples, which originated from two independent datasets in Additional data file 6). In addition, we analyzed by real-time PCR the expression profile of 27 genes across mouse leukocyte subsets from biological samples independent of those used in the gene chips analysis. All the results were consistent with the gene chip data (Additional data file 7). We also confirmed specific expression of PACSIN1 in human pDCs at both the mRNA and protein levels (Additional data file 8). Finally, we believe that our approach validates the gene expression profile identified for leukocyte subsets in the strongest way possible, by demonstrating the evolutionary conservation between mouse and human. Indeed, the gene signatures that we describe here are based on genes found specifically expressed in putatively homologous subsets of mouse and human leukocytes compared to several other types of leukocytes. This approach does not rely solely on the use of independent biological samples of similar origin and on different techniques for measurement of the expression of mRNA. It actually shows that orthologous genes share the same specific expression pattern in putatively homologous immune cell subsets from two different species, under conditions where the markers used to purify the human and mouse cell populations, and the probes used to check the expression of the orthologous genes, differ considerably. Thus, we believe that the analyses presented here are extremely robust even though they were, in part, performed by creating compendia regrouping data generated by different laboratories for different cell types.
In addition to our discovery of transcriptional signatures specific to all LN-DCs or to LN-DC subsets, we demonstrate that, once identified, the transcriptional signatures of multiple cell types can be effectively used to help determine the nature of newly identified cell types of ambiguous phenotype or functions. In our attempt to appropriately place IKDCs and CD16 cells within the leukocyte family, we used the microarray data from the original reports aimed at characterizing these cells and compared them to the data from several other leukocyte populations. The conclusions of this analysis are in sharp contrast to those originally reported [15
]. We believe that these opposing conclusions arise from the difference in the contextual framework within which our data and that of the previously mentioned studies were analyzed. Thus, the results of our analysis of the transcriptional signature of both IKDCs and CD16 cells emphasize the need to study the transcriptional signatures of individual cell populations in the context of multiple cell types of various phenotypes and functions. Finally, this approach also allowed us to confirm a very recent report that demonstrated that in vitro
derived GM-CSF mouse DCs likely correspond to inflammatory DCs and greatly differ from LN-DCs, based on ontogenic and functional studies [75
]. Thus, extrapolation to LN-DCs of the results of the cell biology and functional studies performed with in vitro
derived GM-CSF DCs should only be made with extreme caution.