Researchers devise a new method to study T cell heterogeneity from single cell RNA-seq data

Heterogeneity of T cells is a hallmark of a successful adaptive immune response, harnessing the vast diversity of antigen-specific T cells into a coordinated evolution of effector and memory outcomes. The T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire is highly diverse to account for the highly heterogeneous antigenic world. During the response to a virus multiple individual clones of antigen specific CD8+ (Ag-specific) T cells can be identified against a single epitope and multiple epitopes are recognised. Advances in single-cell technologies have provided the potential to study Ag-specific T cell heterogeneity at both surface phenotype and transcriptome levels, thereby allowing investigation of the diversity within the same apparent sub-population.

Researchers at the UNSW, Australia have developed  a new method (VDJPuzzle) to reconstruct the native TCRαβ from single cell RNA-seq data of Ag-specific T cells and then to link these with the gene expression profile of individual cells. The researchers applied this method using rare Ag-specific T cells isolated from peripheral blood of a subject who cleared hepatitis C virus infection. They successfully reconstructed productive TCRαβ in 56 of a total of 63 cells (89%), with double α and double β in 18%, and 7% respectively, and double TCRαβ in 2 cells. The method was validated via standard single cell PCR sequencing of the TCR.

VDJPuzzle workflow and results.


A. Schematic of the VDJPuzzle workflow. B. PCA showing the four cells bearing the most common TCRαβ (triangle).

These data demonstrate that single-cell transcriptome analysis can successfully distinguish Ag-specific T cell populations sorted directly from resting memory cells in peripheral blood and sorted after ex vivo stimulation. This approach allows a detailed analysis of the TCR diversity and its relationship with the transcriptional profile of different clones.

Availability – VDJPuzzle is freely available at:

Eltahla AA, Rizzetto S, Rasoli M, Betz-Stablein BD, Venturi V, Kedzierska K, Lloyd AR, Bull RA, Luciani F. (2016) Linking the T cell receptor to the single cell transcriptome in antigen-specific human T cells. Immunol Cell Biol [Epub ahead of print]. [abstract]

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