Intestinal Stem Cell Replacement Follows a Pattern of Neutral Drift

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Science  05 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6005, pp. 822-825
DOI: 10.1126/science.1196236

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Gut Stem Cell Replacement

Gut cell turnover is characteristically rapid and relies on stem cells in the crypts that lie between the intestinal villi. The prevailing view is that stem cell division is asymmetric with one daughter retaining a stem cell character; however, this pattern of stem cell turnover does not always apply. Using long-term lineage tracing, Lopez-Garcia et al. (p. 822, published online 23 September) showed that the loss of a stem cell was compensated for by the multiplication of a neighboring cell. The rate of stem-cell loss was found to be equivalent to the rate of cell division, indicating that symmetric cell division was the rule for gut stem cells and implying stochastic expansion, contraction, and extinction of clones occurs.


With the capacity for rapid self-renewal and regeneration, the intestinal epithelium is stereotypical of stem cell–supported tissues. Yet the pattern of stem cell turnover remains in question. Applying analytical methods from population dynamics and statistical physics to an inducible genetic labeling system, we showed that clone size distributions conform to a distinctive scaling behavior at short times. This result demonstrates that intestinal stem cells form an equipotent population in which the loss of a stem cell is compensated by the multiplication of a neighbor, leading to neutral drift dynamics in which clones expand and contract at random until they either take over the crypt or they are lost. Combined with long-term clonal fate data, we show that the rate of stem cell replacement is comparable to the cell division rate, implying that neutral drift and symmetrical cell divisions are central to stem cell homeostasis.

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