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npj Systems Biology and Applications

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Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), a fundamental transdifferentiation process in development, produces diverse phenotypes in different physiological or pathological conditions. Many genes involved in EMT have been identified to date, but mechanisms contributing to the phenotypic diversity and those governing the coupling between the dynamics of epithelial (E) genes and that of the mesenchymal (M) genes are unclear. In this study, we employed combinatorial perturbations to mammary epithelial cells to induce a series of EMT phenotypes by manipulating two essential EMT-inducing elements, namely TGF-β and ZEB1. By measuring transcriptional changes in more than 700 E-genes and M-genes, we discovered that the M-genes exhibit a significant diversity in their dependency to these regulatory elements and identified three groups of M-genes that are controlled by different regulatory circuits. Notably, functional differences were detected among the M-gene clusters in motility regulation and in survival of breast cancer patients. We computationally predicted and experimentally confirmed that the reciprocity and reversibility of EMT are jointly regulated by ZEB1. Our integrative analysis reveals the key roles of ZEB1 in coordinating the dynamics of a large number of genes during EMT, and it provides new insights into the mechanisms for the diversity of EMT phenotypes.


This article was published openly thanks to the University of Tennessee Open Publishing Support Fund.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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