Recent results from single cell gene and protein regulation studies are starting to uncover the previously underappreciated fact that individual cells within a population exhibit high variability in the expression of mRNA and proteins (i.e., molecular variability). By combining cellular network modeling, and high-throughput gene expression measurements in single cells, we seek to reconcile the high molecular variability in single cells with the relatively low variability in tissue-scale gene and protein expression and the highly coordinated functional responses of tissues to physiological challenges. In this study, we focus on relating the dynamic changes in distributions of hepatic stellate cell (HSC) functional phenotypes to the tightly regulated physiological response of liver regeneration.
We develop a mathematical model describing contributions of HSC functional phenotype populations to liver regeneration and test model predictions through isolation and transcriptional characterization of single HSCs. We identify and characterize four HSC transcriptional states contributing to liver regeneration, two of which are described for the first time in this work. We show that HSC state populations change in vivo in response to acute challenges (in this case, 70% partial hepatectomy) and chronic challenges (chronic ethanol consumption). Our results indicate that HSCs influence the dynamics of liver regeneration through steady-state tissue preconditioning prior to an acute insult and through dynamic control of cell state balances. Furthermore, our modeling approach provides a framework to understand how balances among cell states influence tissue dynamics.
Taken together, our combined modeling and experimental studies reveal novel HSC transcriptional states and indicate that baseline differences in HSC phenotypes as well as a dynamic balance of transitions between these phenotypes control liver regeneration responses.