Single-cell transcriptomics of the naked mole-rat reveals unexpected features of mammalian immunity

by Hugo G. Hilton, Nimrod D. Rubinstein, Peter Janki, Andrea T. Ireland, Nicholas Bernstein, Nicole L. Fong, Kevin M. Wright, Megan Smith, David Finkle, Baby Martin-McNulty, Margaret Roy, Denise M. Imai, Vladimir Jojic, Rochelle Buffenstein

The immune system comprises a complex network of specialized cells that protects against infection, eliminates cancerous cells, and regulates tissue repair, thus serving a critical role in homeostasis, health span, and life span. The subterranean-dwelling naked mole-rat (NM-R; Heterocephalus glaber) exhibits prolonged life span relative to its body size, is unusually cancer resistant, and manifests few physiological or molecular changes with advancing age. We therefore hypothesized that the immune system of NM-Rs evolved unique features that confer enhanced cancer immunosurveillance and prevent the age-associated decline in homeostasis. Using single-cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) we mapped the immune system of the NM-R and compared it to that of the short-lived, cancer-prone mouse. In contrast to the mouse, we find that the NM-R immune system is characterized by a high myeloid-to-lymphoid cell ratio that includes a novel, lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-responsive, granulocyte cell subset. Surprisingly, we also find that NM-Rs lack canonical natural killer (NK) cells. Our comparative genomics analyses support this finding, showing that the NM-R genome lacks an expanded gene family that controls NK cell function in several other species. Furthermore, we reconstructed the evolutionary history that likely led to this genomic state. The NM-R thus challenges our current understanding of mammalian immunity, favoring an atypical, myeloid-biased mode of innate immunosurveillance, which may contribute to its remarkable health span.

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