Diverse cellular architecture of atherosclerotic plaque derives from clonal expansion of a few medial SMCs

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Fibrous cap smooth muscle cells (SMCs) protect atherosclerotic lesions from rupturing and causing thrombosis, while other plaque SMCs may have detrimental roles in plaque development. To gain insight into recruitment of different plaque SMCs, we mapped their clonal architecture in aggregation chimeras of eGFP+Apoe-/- and Apoe-/- mouse embryos and in mice with a mosaic expression of fluorescent proteins in medial SMCs that were rendered atherosclerotic by PCSK9-induced hypercholesterolemia. Fibrous caps in aggregation chimeras were found constructed from large, endothelial-aligned layers of either eGFP+ or nonfluorescent SMCs, indicating substantial clonal expansion of a few cells. Similarly, plaques in mice with SMC-restricted Confetti expression showed oligoclonal SMC populations with little intermixing between the progeny of different medial SMCs. Phenotypes comprised both ACTA2+ SMCs in the cap and heterogeneous ACTA2- SMCs in the plaque interior, including chondrocyte-like cells and cells with intracellular lipid and crystalline material. Fibrous cap SMCs were invariably arranged in endothelium-aligned clonal sheets, confirming results in the aggregation chimeras. Analysis of the clonal structure showed that a low number of local medial SMCs partake in atherosclerosis and that single medial SMCs can produce several different SMC phenotypes in plaque. The combined results show that few medial SMCs proliferate to form the entire phenotypically heterogeneous plaque SMC population in murine atherosclerosis.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJCI Insight
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2017

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