Macrophages and dendritic cells (DCs), although ontogenetically distinct, have overlapping functions and exhibit substantial cell-to-cell heterogeneity that can complicate their identification and obscure innate immune function. In this study, we report that M-CSF–differentiated murine bone marrow–derived macrophages (BMDMs) exhibit extreme heterogeneity in the production of IL-12, a key proinflammatory cytokine linking innate and adaptive immunity. A microwell secretion assay revealed that a small fraction of BMDMs stimulated with LPS secrete most IL-12p40, and we confirmed that this is due to extremely high expression of Il12b, the gene encoding IL-12p40, in a subset of cells. Using an Il12b-YFP reporter mouse, we isolated cells with high LPS-induced Il12b expression and found that this subset was enriched for genes associated with the DC lineage. Single-cell RNA sequencing data confirmed a DC-like subset that differentiates within BMDM cultures that is transcriptionally distinct but could not be isolated by surface marker expression. Although not readily apparent in the resting state, upon LPS stimulation, this subset exhibited a typical DC-associated activation program that is distinct from LPS-induced stochastic BMDM cell-to-cell heterogeneity. Overall, our findings underscore the difficulty in distinguishing macrophages and DCs even in widely used in vitro murine BMDM cultures and could affect the interpretation of some studies that use BMDMs to explore acute inflammatory responses.

You do not currently have access to this content.