Aging increases cell-to-cell transcriptional variability upon immune stimulation
Aging is characterized by progressive loss of physiological and cellular functions, but the molecular basis of this decline remains unclear. We explored how aging affects transcriptional dynamics using single-cell RNA sequencing of unstimulated and stimulated naïve and effector memory CD4+ T cells from young and old mice from two divergent species. In young animals, immunological activation drives a conserved transcriptomic switch, resulting in tightly controlled gene expression characterized by a strong up-regulation of a core activation program, coupled with a decrease in cell-to-cell variability. Aging perturbed the activation of this core program and increased expression heterogeneity across populations of cells in both species. These discoveries suggest that increased cell-to-cell transcriptional variability will be a hallmark feature of aging across most, if not all, mammalian tissues.