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Lentiviral and targeted cellular barcoding reveals ongoing clonal dynamics of cell lines in vitro and in vivo

Shaina N Porter12, Lee C Baker3, David Mittelman34 and Matthew H Porteus2*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pediatrics, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX 75390, USA

2 Department of Pediatrics, Stanford Medical Center, Stanford, CA 94305, USA

3 Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA

4 Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA

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Genome Biology 2014, 15:R75  doi:10.1186/gb-2014-15-5-r75

Published: 30 May 2014



Cell lines are often regarded as clonal, even though this simplifies what is known about mutagenesis, transformation and other processes that destabilize them over time. Monitoring these clonal dynamics is important for multiple areas of biomedical research, including stem cell and cancer biology. Tracking the contributions of individual cells to large populations, however, has been constrained by limitations in sensitivity and complexity.


We utilize cellular barcoding methods to simultaneously track the clonal contributions of tens of thousands of cells. We demonstrate that even with optimal culturing conditions, common cell lines including HeLa, K562 and HEK-293 T exhibit ongoing clonal dynamics. Starting a population with a single clone diminishes but does not eradicate this phenomenon. Next, we compare lentiviral and zinc-finger nuclease barcode insertion approaches, finding that the zinc-finger nuclease protocol surprisingly results in reduced clonal diversity. We also document the expected reduction in clonal complexity when cells are challenged with genotoxic stress. Finally, we demonstrate that xenografts maintain clonal diversity to a greater extent than in vitro culturing of the human non-small-cell lung cancer cell line HCC827.


We demonstrate the feasibility of tracking and quantifying the clonal dynamics of entire cell populations within multiple cultured cell lines. Our results suggest that cell heterogeneity should be considered in the design and interpretation of in vitro culture experiments. Aside from clonal cell lines, we propose that cellular barcoding could prove valuable in modeling the clonal behavior of heterogeneous cell populations over time, including tumor populations treated with chemotherapeutic agents.