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Single-Cell RNA-Seq Reveals the Transcriptional Landscape and Heterogeneity of Aortic Macrophages in Murine Atherosclerosis

Rationale: It is assumed that atherosclerotic arteries contain several macrophage subsets endowed with specific functions. The precise identity of these subsets is poorly characterized as they have been defined by the expression of a restricted number of markers. Objective: We have applied single-cell RNA sequencing as an unbiased profiling strategy to interrogate and classify aortic macrophage heterogeneity at the single-cell level in atherosclerosis. Method and Results: We performed single-cell RNA sequencing of total aortic CD45+ cells extracted from the nondiseased (chow fed) and atherosclerotic (11 weeks of high-fat diet) aorta of low-density lipoprotein receptor–deficient (Ldlr−/−) mice. Unsupervised clustering singled out 13 distinct aortic cell clusters. Among the myeloid cell populations, resident-like macrophages with a gene expression profile similar to aortic resident macrophages were found in healthy and diseased aortas, whereas monocytes, monocyte-derived dendritic cells, and 2 populations of macrophages were almost exclusively detectable in atherosclerotic aortas, comprising inflammatory macrophages showing enrichment in Il1b and previously undescribed TREM2hi (triggered receptor expressed on myeloid cells 2) macrophages showing enrichment in Trem2. Differential gene expression and gene ontology enrichment analyses revealed specific gene expression patterns distinguishing these 3 macrophage subsets and monocyte-derived dendritic cells and uncovered putative functions of each cell type. Notably, TREM2hi macrophages seemed to be endowed with specialized functions in lipid metabolism and catabolism and presented a gene expression signature reminiscent of osteoclasts, suggesting a role in lesion calcification. TREM2 expression was moreover detected in human lesional macrophages. Importantly, these macrophage populations were present also in advanced atherosclerosis and in Apoe−/− aortas, indicating relevance of our findings in different stages of atherosclerosis and mouse models.