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BMC Biotechnol. 2013 Oct 3;13:80. doi: 10.1186/1472-6750-13-80.

A method for cell type marker discovery by high-throughput gene expression analysis of mixed cell populations.

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  • 1Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, 501 Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ontario K1H 8L6, Canada.



Gene transcripts specifically expressed in a particular cell type (cell-type specific gene markers) are useful for its detection and isolation from a tissue or other cell mixtures. However, finding informative marker genes can be problematic when working with a poorly characterized cell type, as markers can only be unequivocally determined once the cell type has been isolated. We propose a method that could identify marker genes of an uncharacterized cell type within a mixed cell population, provided that the proportion of the cell type of interest in the mixture can be estimated by some indirect method, such as a functional assay.


We show that cell-type specific gene markers can be identified from the global gene expression of several cell mixtures that contain the cell type of interest in a known proportion by their high correlation to the concentration of the corresponding cell type across the mixtures.


Genes detected using this high-throughput strategy would be candidate markers that may be useful in detecting or purifying a cell type from a particular biological context. We present an experimental proof-of-concept of this method using cell mixtures of various well-characterized hematopoietic cell types, and we evaluate the performance of the method in a benchmark that explores the requirements and range of validity of the approach.

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