An miRNA Expression Signature for the Human Colonic Stem Cell Niche Distinguishes Malignant from Normal Epithelia.
Our goal was to identify a unique gene expression signature for human colonic stem cells (SCs). Accordingly, we determined the gene expression pattern for a known SC-enriched region--the crypt bottom. Colonic crypts and isolated crypt subsections (top, middle, and bottom) were purified from fresh, normal, human, surgical specimens. We then used an innovative strategy that used two-color microarrays (∼18,500 genes) to compare gene expression in the crypt bottom with expression in the other crypt subsections (middle or top). Array results were validated by PCR and immunostaining. About 25% of genes analyzed were expressed in crypts: 88 preferentially in the bottom, 68 in the middle, and 131 in the top. Among genes upregulated in the bottom, ∼30% were classified as growth and/or developmental genes including several in the PI3 kinase pathway, a six-transmembrane protein STAMP1, and two homeobox (HOXA4, HOXD10) genes. qPCR and immunostaining validated that HOXA4 and HOXD10 are selectively expressed in the normal crypt bottom and are overexpressed in colon carcinomas (CRCs). Immunostaining showed that HOXA4 and HOXD10 are co-expressed with the SC markers CD166 and ALDH1 in cells at the normal crypt bottom, and the number of these co-expressing cells is increased in CRCs. Thus, our findings show that these two HOX genes are selectively expressed in colonic SCs and that HOX overexpression in CRCs parallels the SC overpopulation that occurs during CRC development. Our study suggests that developmental genes play key roles in the maintenance of normal SCs and crypt renewal, and contribute to the SC overpopulation that drives colon tumorigenesis.