Whether somatic mutations contribute functional diversity to brain cells is a long-standing question. Single-neuron genomics enables direct measurement of somatic mutation rates in human brain and promises to answer this question. A recent study (Upton et al., 2015) reported high rates of somatic LINE-1 element (L1) retrotransposition in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex that would have major implications for normal brain function, and further claimed these mutation events preferentially impact genes important for neuronal function. We identify errors in single-cell sequencing approach, bioinformatic analysis, and validation methods that led to thousands of false-positive artifacts being mistakenly interpreted as somatic mutation events. Our reanalysis of the data supports a corrected mutation frequency (0.2 per cell) more than fifty-fold lower than reported, inconsistent with the authors' conclusion of 'ubiquitous' L1 mosaicism, but consistent with L1 elements mobilizing occasionally. Through consideration of the challenges and pitfalls identified, we provide a foundation and framework for designing single-cell genomics studies.
Somatic mutations occur during brain development and are increasingly implicated as a cause of neurogenetic disease. However, the patterns in which somatic mutations distribute in the human brain are unknown. We used high-coverage whole-genome sequencing of single neurons from a normal individual to identify spontaneous somatic mutations as clonal marks to track cell lineages in human brain. Somatic mutation analyses in >30 locations throughout the nervous system identified multiple lineages and sublineages of cells marked by different LINE-1 (L1) retrotransposition events and subsequent mutation of poly-A microsatellites within L1. One clone contained thousands of cells limited to the left middle frontal gyrus, whereas a second distinct clone contained millions of cells distributed over the entire left hemisphere. These patterns mirror known somatic mutation disorders of brain development and suggest that focally distributed mutations are also prevalent in normal brains. Single-cell analysis of somatic mutation enables tracing of cell lineage clones in human brain.
A major unanswered question in neuroscience is whether there exists genomic variability between individual neurons of the brain, contributing to functional diversity or to an unexplained burden of neurological disease. To address this question, we developed a method to amplify genomes of single neurons from human brains. Because recent reports suggest frequent LINE-1 (L1) retrotransposition in human brains, we performed genome-wide L1 insertion profiling of 300 single neurons from cerebral cortex and caudate nucleus of three normal individuals, recovering >80% of germline insertions from single neurons. While we find somatic L1 insertions, we estimate <0.6 unique somatic insertions per neuron, and most neurons lack detectable somatic insertions, suggesting that L1 is not a major generator of neuronal diversity in cortex and caudate. We then genotyped single cortical cells to characterize the mosaicism of a somatic AKT3 mutation identified in a child with hemimegalencephaly. Single-neuron sequencing allows systematic assessment of genomic diversity in the human brain.