Research Article

Single-cell Wnt signaling niches maintain stemness of alveolar type 2 cells

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Science  09 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6380, pp. 1118-1123
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam6603

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Fibroblasts as lung stem cell niche

Each breath that we take provides oxygen to the bloodstream via tiny sacs in the lung called alveoli. AT1 cells line the alveoli and mediate gas exchange, whereas AT2 cells secrete lung surfactant. A subset of AT2s also serve as stem cells that slowly generate new alveolar cells throughout adult life. Nabhan et al. show that the rare AT2 stem cells have a special niche next to a fibroblast secreting Wnts. This Wnt activity is needed to select and maintain the stem cells. Injury expands the stem cell pool by transiently inducing autocrine Wnts in other surfactant-secreting alveolar cells. This simple but expandable niche sustains oxygen delivery, and it is co-opted in lung cancer.

Science, this issue p. 1118


Alveoli, the lung’s respiratory units, are tiny sacs where oxygen enters the bloodstream. They are lined by flat alveolar type 1 (AT1) cells, which mediate gas exchange, and AT2 cells, which secrete surfactant. Rare AT2s also function as alveolar stem cells. We show that AT2 lung stem cells display active Wnt signaling, and many of them are near single, Wnt-expressing fibroblasts. Blocking Wnt secretion depletes these stem cells. Daughter cells leaving the Wnt niche transdifferentiate into AT1s: Maintaining Wnt signaling prevents transdifferentiation, whereas abrogating Wnt signaling promotes it. Injury induces AT2 autocrine Wnts, recruiting “bulk” AT2s as progenitors. Thus, individual AT2 stem cells reside in single-cell fibroblast niches providing juxtacrine Wnts that maintain them, whereas injury induces autocrine Wnts that transiently expand the progenitor pool. This simple niche maintains the gas exchange surface and is coopted in cancer.

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