Metastases are responsible for the majority of breast cancer–associated deaths. The contribution of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) in the establishment of metastases is still controversial. To obtain in vivo evidence of EMT in metastasis, we established an EMT lineage tracing (Tri-PyMT) model, in which tumor cells undergoing EMT would irreversibly switch their fluorescent marker from RFPþ to GFPþ due to mesenchymal-specific Cre expression. Surprisingly, we found that lung metastases were predominantly derived from the epithelial compartment of breast tumors. However, concerns were raised on the fidelity and sensitivity of RFP-to-GFP switch of this model in reporting EMT of metastatic tumor cells. Here, we evaluated Tri-PyMT cells at the single-cell level using single-cell RNA-sequencing and found that the Tri-PyMT cells exhibited a spectrum of EMT phenotypes, with EMT-related genes concomitantly expressed with the activation of GFP. The fluorescent color switch in these cells precisely marked an unequivocal change in EMT status, defining the pre-EMT and post-EMT compartments within the tumor. Consistently, the pre-EMT cells played dominant roles in metastasis, while the post-EMT cells were supportive in promoting tumor invasion and angiogenesis. Importantly, the post-EMT (GFPþ) cells in the Tri-PyMT model were not permanently committed to the mesenchymal phenotype; they were still capable of reverting to the epithelial phenotype and giving rise to secondary tumors, suggesting their persistent EMT plasticity. Our study addressed major concerns with the Tri-PyMT EMT lineage tracing model, which provides us with a powerful tool to investigate the dynamic EMT process in tumor biology.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cancer Research