Controversy surrounds the identity and functionality of rare bone marrow–derived multipotential stromal cells (BM-MSCs), including their differentiation capabilities, their relationship to pericytes and hematopoiesis-supporting stromal cells, and the relevance of their culture-expanded progeny in studies of skeletal biology and development of cell-based therapies. The aim of this study was to clarify the nature of candidate BM-MSCs by profiling transcripts that reflect different aspects of their putative functions in vivo.


Rare, sorted BM-derived CD45−/low CD271bright (CD271) cells were analyzed using 96-gene expression arrays focused on transcripts relevant to mesenchymal-lineage differentiation (toward bone, cartilage, fat, or muscle), hematopoietic and stromal support, and molecules critical to skeletal homeostasis. These cells were compared to matched CD45+ CD271− hematopoietic-lineage cells, culture-expanded MSCs, and skin fibroblasts. When feasible, transcription was validated using flow cytometry.


CD271 cells had a transcriptional profile consistent with the multiple fates of in vivo MSCs, evident from the observed simultaneous expression of osteogenic, adipogenic, pericytic, and hematopoiesis-supporting genes (e.g., SP7 [osterix], FABP4 [fatty acid binding protein 4], ANGPT1 [angiopoietin 1], and CXCL12 [stromal cell–derived factor 1], respectively). Compared to culture-expanded MSCs and fibroblasts, CD271 cells exhibited greater transcriptional activity, particularly with respect to Wnt-related genes (>1,000-fold increased expression of FRZB [secreted frizzled-related protein 3] and WIF1 [Wnt inhibitory factor 1]). A number of transcripts were identified as novel markers of MSCs.


The native, BM-derived in vivo MSC population is endowed with a gene signature that is compatible with multiple functions, reflecting the topographic bone niche of these cells, and their signature is significantly different from that of culture-expanded MSCs. This indicates that studies of the biologic functions of MSCs in musculoskeletal diseases, including osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, should focus on in vivo MSCs, rather than their culture-adapted progeny.