Origin and functional heterogeneity of fibroblasts

Valerie S. LeBleu, Eric G. Neilson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

111 Scopus citations


The inherent plasticity and resiliency of fibroblasts make this cell type a conventional tool for basic research. But where do they come from, are all fibroblasts the same, and how do they function in disease? The first fibroblast lineages in mammalian development emerge from the ooze of primary mesenchyme during gastrulation. They are cells that efficiently create and negotiate the extracellular matrix of the mesoderm in order to migrate and meet their developmental fate. Mature fibroblasts in epithelial tissues live in the interstitial spaces between basement membranes that spatially delimit complex organ structures. While the function of resident fibroblasts in healthy tissues is largely conjecture, the accumulation of fibroblasts in pathologic lesions offers insight into biologic mechanisms that control their function; fibroblasts are poised to coordinate fibrogenesis in tissue injury, neoplasia, and aging. Here, we examine the developmental origin and plasticity of fibroblasts, their molecular and functional definitions, the epigenetic control underlying their identity and activation, and the evolution of their immune regulatory functions. These topics are reviewed through the lens of fate mapping using genetically engineered mouse models and from the perspective of single-cell RNA sequencing. Recent observations suggest dynamic and heterogeneous functions for fibroblasts that underscore their complex molecular signatures and utility in injured tissues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3519-3536
Number of pages18
JournalFASEB Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • cancer
  • endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition
  • epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition
  • fibroblasts
  • fibrosis
  • mesenchymal state

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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