A major focus of my laboratory is to understand how hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) form during normal embryonic development. HSCs and the earlier populations of committed progenitors differentiate from a small, transient population of endothelial cells referred to as “hemogenic endothelium”. About 15 years ago we demonstrated that the transcription factor Runx1 was a specific marker of hemogenic endothelium, and that Runx1 is absolutely required for the formation of blood from hemogenic endothelium (North et al. Development, 1999). We helped settle an almost 100 year debate over whether hemogenic endothelium actually exists, and demonstrated that at least 95% of all adult HSCs are derived from hemogenic endothelium in the embryo (Chen et al. Nature 2009). Another important discovery was that hemogenic endothelium is functionally heterogeneous (Chen et al. Cell Stem Cell, 2011). We more recently discovered a role for sterile inflammatory signaling in HSC formation in the embryo (Li et al. Genes & Development, 2014), and are currently determining which inflammatory pathways are involved.
A transitional cell in HSC formation is the pre-HSC – an immature HSC that has recently differentiated from hemogenic endothelium and remains attached to the arterial wall, and has not yet colonized the fetal liver. The pre-HSC has the potential to become an HSC, but it cannot engraft an adult mouse. It is normally released into the embryonic circulation and matures into a fully functional adult HSC in the fetal liver. We are analyzing the gene expression and chromatin state transitions that underlay the stepwise transition from hemogenic endothelium to pre-HSC to HSC. The goals of this analysis are to identify stage-specific regulatory DNA elements (e.g. promoters and enhancers) that are active (or repressed) during HSC ontogeny, describe the combinatorial patterns associated with various functional DNA elements, and determine the relationship between chromatin state and gene expression through integrative analyses of RNA-Seq and histone modification ChIP-Seq data. We are also attempting to identify new cell surface markers of pre-HSCs.