Inference of differentiation trajectories by transfer learning across biological processes


  • G. Jumde
  • B. Spanjaard
  • J.P. Junker


  • Cell Systems


  • Cell Syst 15 (1): 75-82.e5


  • Stem cells differentiate into distinct fates by transitioning through a series of transcriptional states. Current computational approaches allow reconstruction of differentiation trajectories from single-cell transcriptomics data, but it remains unknown to what degree differentiation can be predicted across biological processes. Here, we use transfer learning to infer differentiation processes and quantify predictability in early embryonic development and adult hematopoiesis. Overall, we find that non-linear methods outperform linear approaches, and we achieved the best predictions with a custom variational autoencoder that explicitly models changes in transcriptional variance. We observed a high accuracy of predictions in embryonic development, but we found somewhat lower agreement with the real data in adult hematopoiesis. We demonstrate that this discrepancy can be explained by a higher degree of concordant transcriptional processes along embryonic differentiation compared with adult homeostasis. In summary, we establish a framework for quantifying and exploiting predictability of cellular differentiation trajectories.