Cells demonstrate plasticity following injury, but the extent of this phenomenon and the cellular mechanisms involved remain underexplored. Using single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) and lineage tracing, we uncover that myoepithelial cells (MECs) of the submucosal glands (SMGs) proliferate and migrate to repopulate the airway surface epithelium (SE) in multiple injury models. Specifically, SMG-derived cells display multipotency and contribute to basal and luminal cell types of the SMGs and SE. Ex vivo expanded MECs have the potential to repopulate and differentiate into SE cells when grafted onto denuded airway scaffolds. Significantly, we find that SMG-like cells appear on the SE of both extra- and intra-lobular airways of large animal lungs following severe injury. We find that the transcription factor SOX9 is necessary for MEC plasticity in airway regeneration. Because SMGs are abundant and present deep within airways, they may serve as a reserve cell source for enhancing human airway regeneration.
Tissue regeneration requires dynamic cellular adaptation to the wound environment. It is currently unclear how this is orchestrated at the cellular level and how cell fate is affected by severe tissue damage. Here we dissect cell fate transitions during colonic regeneration in a mouse dextran sulfate sodium (DSS) colitis model, and we demonstrate that the epithelium is transiently reprogrammed into a primitive state. This is characterized by de novo expression of fetal markers as well as suppression of markers for adult stem and differentiated cells. The fate change is orchestrated by remodeling the extracellular matrix (ECM), increased FAK/Src signaling, and ultimately YAP/TAZ activation. In a defined cell culture system recapitulating the extracellular matrix remodeling observed in vivo, we show that a collagen 3D matrix supplemented with Wnt ligands is sufficient to sustain endogenous YAP/TAZ and induce conversion of cell fate. This provides a simple model for tissue regeneration, implicating cellular reprogramming as an essential element.