Single-cell RNA sequencing in facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy disease etiology and development

Anita van den Heuvel, Ahmed Mahfouz, Susan L. Kloet, Judit Balog, Baziel G.M. van Engelen, Rabi Tawil, Stephen J. Tapscott, Silvère M. van der Maarel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) is characterized by sporadic de-repression of the transcription factor DUX4 in skeletal muscle. DUX4 activates a cascade of muscle disrupting events, eventually leading to muscle atrophy and apoptosis. Yet, how sporadic DUX4 expression leads to the generalized muscle wasting remains unclear. Transcriptome analyses have systematically been challenged by the majority of nuclei being DUX4neg, weakening the DUX4 transcriptome signature. Moreover, DUX4 has been shown to be expressed in a highly dynamic burst-like manner, likely resulting in the detection of the downstream cascade of events long after DUX4 expression itself has faded. Identifying the FSHD transcriptome in individual cells and unraveling the cascade of events leading to FSHD development may therefore provide important insights in the disease process. We employed single-cell RNA sequencing, combined with pseudotime trajectory modeling, to study FSHD disease etiology and cellular progression in human primary myocytes. We identified a small FSHD-specific cell population in all tested patient-derived cultures and detected new genes associated with DUX4 de-repression. We furthermore generated an FSHD cellular progression model, reflecting both the early burst-like DUX4 expression as well as the downstream activation of various FSHD-associated pathways, which allowed us to correlate DUX4 expression signature dynamics with that of regulatory complexes, thereby facilitating the prioritization of epigenetic targets for DUX4 silencing. Single-cell transcriptomics combined with pseudotime modeling thus holds valuable information on FSHD disease etiology and progression that can potentially guide biomarker and target selection for therapy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1064-1075
Number of pages12
JournalHuman Molecular Genetics
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • muscular dystrophy
  • facioscapulohumeral
  • genes
  • rna
  • small cytoplasmic
  • sequence analysis
  • muscle cells
  • causality

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