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Cell Cycle. 2013 Dec 1;12(23):3640-9. doi: 10.4161/cc.26580. Epub 2013 Oct 1.

Single cell heterogeneity: why unstable genomes are incompatible with average profiles.

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Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics; Wayne State University School of Medicine; Detroit, MI USA.


Multi-level heterogeneity is a fundamental but underappreciated feature of cancer. Most technical and analytical methods either completely ignore heterogeneity or do not fully account for it, as heterogeneity has been considered noise that needs to be eliminated. We have used single-cell and population-based assays to describe an instability-mediated mechanism where genome heterogeneity drastically affects cell growth and cannot be accurately measured using conventional averages. First, we show that most unstable cancer cell populations exhibit high levels of karyotype heterogeneity, where it is difficult, if not impossible, to karyotypically clone cells. Second, by comparing stable and unstable cell populations, we show that instability-mediated karyotype heterogeneity leads to growth heterogeneity, where outliers dominantly contribute to population growth and exhibit shorter cell cycles. Predictability of population growth is more difficult for heterogeneous cell populations than for homogenous cell populations. Since "outliers" play an important role in cancer evolution, where genome instability is the key feature, averaging methods used to characterize cell populations are misleading. Variances quantify heterogeneity; means (averages) smooth heterogeneity, invariably hiding it. Cell populations of pathological conditions with high genome instability, like cancer, behave differently than karyotypically homogeneous cell populations. Single-cell analysis is thus needed when cells are not genomically identical. Despite increased attention given to single-cell variation mediated heterogeneity of cancer cells, continued use of average-based methods is not only inaccurate but deceptive, as the "average" cancer cell clearly does not exist. Genome-level heterogeneity also may explain population heterogeneity, drug resistance, and cancer evolution.


genome theory; genomic instability; nonclonal chromosomal aberration; punctuated cancer evolution; tumor heterogeneity

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