Research Article

Microglia development follows a stepwise program to regulate brain homeostasis

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  19 Aug 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6301, aad8670
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8670

You are currently viewing the abstract.

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

Microglia development follows a stepwise program

Microglia are cells that defend the central nervous system. However, because they migrate into the brain during development, the changes that they undergo, including those that affect gene expression, have been difficult to document. Matcovitch-Natan et al. transcriptionally profiled gene expression and analyzed epigenetic signatures of microglia at the single-cell level in the early postnatal life of mice. They identified three stages of microglia development, which are characterized by gene expression and linked with chromatin changes, occurring in sync with the developing brain. Furthermore, they showed that the proper development of microglia is affected by the microbiome.

Science, this issue p. 789

Structured Abstract


Microglia, as the resident myeloid cells of the central nervous system, play an important role in life-long brain maintenance and in pathology. Microglia are derived from erythromyeloid progenitors that migrate to the brain starting at embryonic day 8.5 and continuing until the blood-brain barrier is formed; after this, self-renewal is the only source of new microglia in the healthy brain. As the brain develops, microglia must perform different functions to accommodate temporally changing needs: first, actively engaging in synapse pruning and neurogenesis, and later, maintaining homeostasis. Although the interactions of microglia with the brain environment at steady state and in response to immune challenges have been well studied, their dynamics during development have not been fully elucidated.


We systematically studied the transcriptional and epigenomic regulation of microglia throughout brain development to decipher the dynamics of the chromatin state and gene networks governing the transformation from yolk sac progenitor to adult microglia. We used environmental and genetic perturbation models to investigate how timed disruptions to microglia impact their natural development.


Global profiles of transcriptional states indicated that microglia development proceeds through three distinct temporal stages, which we define as early microglia (until embryonic day 14), pre-microglia (from embryonic day 14 to a few weeks after birth), and adult microglia (from a few weeks after birth onward). ATAC-seq (assay for transposase-accessible chromatin followed by sequencing) for chromatin accessibility and ChIP-seq (chromatin immunoprecipitation followed by sequencing) for histone modifications further characterized the differential regulatory elements in each developmental phase. Single-cell transcriptome analysis revealed minor mixing of the gene expression programs across phases, suggesting that individual cells shift their regulatory networks during development in a coordinated manner. Specific markers and regulatory factors distinguish each phase: For example, we identified MAFB as an important transcription factor of the adult microglia program. Microglia-specific knockout of MafB led to disruption of homeostasis in adulthood and increased expression of interferon and inflammation pathways. We found that microglia from germ-free mice exhibited dysregulation of dozens of genes associated with the adult phase and immune response. In addition, maternal immune activation, which has been linked to behavioral disorders in adult offspring, had the greatest impact on pre-microglia, resulting in a transcriptional shift toward the more advanced developmental stage.


Our work identifies a stepwise developmental program of microglia in synchrony with the developing brain. Each stage of microglia development has evolved distinct pathways for processing the relevant signals from the environment to balance their time-dependent role in neurogenesis with regulation of immune responses that may cause collateral damage. Genetic or environmental perturbations of these pathways can disrupt stage-specific functions of microglia and lead to loss of brain homeostasis, which may be associated with neurodevelopmental disorders.

Microglia development proceeds in a stepwise manner.

Microglia were isolated from mice throughout development from embryo to adult. Data from population-level RNA-seq, ChIP-seq, and ATAC-seq, as well as single-cell RNA-seq, show that microglia development proceeds through three distinct stages—early, pre-, and adult— with characteristic gene expression and functional states. Perturbations of this developmental process, such as from MafB knockout, lead to disrupted brain homeostasis by the dysregulation of adult and inflammatory genes. Tn5, transposase 5.


Microglia, the resident myeloid cells of the central nervous system, play important roles in life-long brain maintenance and in pathology. Despite their importance, their regulatory dynamics during brain development have not been fully elucidated. Using genome-wide chromatin and expression profiling coupled with single-cell transcriptomic analysis throughout development, we found that microglia undergo three temporal stages of development in synchrony with the brain—early, pre-, and adult microglia—which are under distinct regulatory circuits. Knockout of the gene encoding the adult microglia transcription factor MAFB and environmental perturbations, such as those affecting the microbiome or prenatal immune activation, led to disruption of developmental genes and immune response pathways. Together, our work identifies a stepwise microglia developmental program integrating immune response pathways that may be associated with several neurodevelopmental disorders.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science