Research highlights: microfluidic-enabled single-cell epigenetics
Individual cells are the fundamental unit of life with diverse functions from metabolism to motility. In multicellular organisms, a single genome can give rise to tremendous variability across tissues at the single-cell level due to epigenetic differences in the genes that are expressed. Signals from the local environment or a history of signals can drive these variations, and tissues have many cell types that play separate roles. This epigenetic heterogeneity is of biological importance in normal functions such as tissue morphogenesis and can contribute to development or resistance of cancer, or other disease states. Therefore, an improved understanding of variations at the single cell level are fundamental to understanding biology and developing new approaches to combating disease. Traditional approaches to characterize epigenetic modifications of chromatin or the transcriptome of cells have often focused on blended responses of many cells in a tissue; however, such bulk measures lose spatial and temporal differences that occur from cell to cell, and cannot uncover novel or rare populations of cells. Here we highlight a flurry of recent activity to identify the mRNA profiles from thousands of single-cells as well as chromatin accessibility and histone marks on single to few hundreds of cells. Microfluidics and microfabrication have played a central role in the range of new techniques, and will likely continue to impact their further development towards routine single-cell epigenetic analysis.