Mammalian gene expression variability is explained by underlying cell state

Robert Foreman, Roy Wollman
Mol Syst Biol (2020)16:e9146

Gene expression variability in mammalian systems plays an important role in physiological and pathophysiological conditions. This variability can come from differential regulation related to cell state (extrinsic) and allele-specific transcriptional bursting (intrinsic). Yet, the relative contribution of these two distinct sources is unknown. Here, we exploit the qualitative difference in the patterns of covariance between these two sources to quantify their relative contributions to expression variance in mammalian cells. Using multiplexed error robust RNA fluorescent in situ hybridization (MERFISH), we measured the multivariate gene expression distribution of 150 genes related to Ca2+ signaling coupled with the dynamic Ca2+ response of live cells to ATP. We show that after controlling for cellular phenotypic states such as size, cell cycle stage, and Ca2+ response to ATP, the remaining variability is effectively at the Poisson limit for most genes. These findings demonstrate that the majority of expression variability results from cell state differences and that the contribution of transcriptional bursting is relatively minimal.