Rupture and erosion of advanced atherosclerotic lesions with a resultant myocardial infarction or stroke are the leading worldwide cause of death. However, we have a limited understanding of the identity, origin, and function of many cells that make up late-stage atherosclerotic lesions, as well as the mechanisms by which they control plaque stability. We conducted a comprehensive single-cell RNA sequencing of advanced human carotid endarterectomy samples and compared these with single-cell RNA sequencing from murine microdissected advanced atherosclerotic lesions with smooth muscle cell (SMC) and endothelial lineage tracing to survey all plaque cell types and rigorously determine their origin. We further used chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing (ChIP-seq), bulk RNA sequencing, and an innovative dual lineage tracing mouse to understand the mechanism by which SMC phenotypic transitions affect lesion pathogenesis.

We provide evidence that SMC-specific Klf4- versus Oct4-knockout showed virtually opposite genomic signatures, and their putative target genes play an important role regulating SMC phenotypic changes. Single-cell RNA sequencing revealed remarkable similarity of transcriptomic clusters between mouse and human lesions and extensive plasticity of SMC- and endothelial cell-derived cells including 7 distinct clusters, most negative for traditional markers. In particular, SMC contributed to a Myh11-, Lgals3+ population with a chondrocyte-like gene signature that was markedly reduced with SMC-Klf4 knockout.