22q11.2 deletion syndrome (22q11.2DS) is the most common human chromosomal microdeletion, causing developmentally linked congenital malformations, thymic hypoplasia, hypoparathyroidism, and/or cardiac defects. Thymic hypoplasia leads to T cell lymphopenia, which most often results in mild SCID. Despite decades of research, the molecular underpinnings leading to thymic hypoplasia in 22q11.2DS remain unknown. Comparison of embryonic thymuses from mouse models of 22q11.2DS (Tbx1neo2/neo2) revealed proportions of mesenchymal, epithelial, and hematopoietic cell types similar to those of control thymuses. Yet, the small thymuses were growth restricted in fetal organ cultures. Replacement of Tbx1neo2/neo2 thymic mesenchymal cells with normal ones restored tissue growth. Comparative single-cell RNA-Seq of embryonic thymuses uncovered 17 distinct cell subsets, with transcriptome differences predominant in the 5 mesenchymal subsets from the Tbx1neo2/neo2 cell line. The transcripts affected included those for extracellular matrix proteins, consistent with the increased collagen deposition we observed in the small thymuses. Attenuating collagen cross-links with minoxidil restored thymic tissue expansion for hypoplastic lobes. In colony-forming assays, the Tbx1neo2/neo2-derived mesenchymal cells had reduced expansion potential, in contrast to the normal growth of thymic epithelial cells. These findings suggest that mesenchymal cells were causal to the small embryonic thymuses in the 22q11.2DS mouse models, which was correctable by substitution with normal mesenchyme.
Pratibha Bhalla, Qiumei Du, Ashwani Kumar, Chao Xing, Angela Moses, Igor Dozmorov, Christian A. Wysocki, Ondine B. Cleaver, Timothy J. Pirolli, Mary Louise Markert, Maria Teresa de la Morena, Antonio Baldini, Nicolai S.C. van Oers
Percentages of cellular subsets in control and hypoplastic fetal thymuses