Sox9 marks limbal stem cells and is required for asymmetric cell fate switch in the corneal epithelium

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Adult tissues with high cellular turnover require a balance between stem cell renewal and differentiation, yet the mechanisms underlying this equilibrium are unclear. The cornea exhibits a polarized lateral flow of progenitors from the peripheral stem cell niche to the center; attributed to differences in cellular fate. To identify genes that are critical for regulating the asymmetric fates of limbal stem cells and their transient amplified progeny in the central cornea, we utilized an in vivo cell cycle reporter to isolate proliferating basal cells across the anterior ocular surface epithelium and performed single-cell transcriptional analysis. This strategy greatly increased the resolution and revealed distinct basal cell identities with unique expression profiles of structural genes and transcription factors. We focused on Sox9; a transcription factor implicated in stem cell regulation across various organs. Sox9 was found to be differentially expressed between limbal stem cells and their progeny in the central corneal. Lineage tracing analysis confirmed that Sox9 marks long-lived limbal stem cells and conditional deletion led to abnormal differentiation and squamous metaplasia in the central cornea. These data suggest a requirement for Sox9 for the switch to asymmetric fate and commitment toward differentiation, as transient cells exit the limbal niche. By inhibiting terminal differentiation of corneal progenitors and forcing them into perpetual symmetric divisions, we replicated the Sox9 loss-of-function phenotype. Our findings reveal an essential role for Sox9 for the spatial regulation of asymmetric fate in the corneal epithelium that is required to sustain tissue homeostasis.

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