These are great questions. We recently started exploring some of these by utilizing the inherent subject-to-subject variation in protein expression heterogeneity in immune cell subpopulations in a human cohort (see references below).
Abstract: Cell-to-cell expression variation (CEV) is a prevalent feature of even well-defined cell populations, but its functions, particularly at the organismal level, are not well understood. Using single-cell data obtained via high-dimensional flow cytometry of T cells as a model, we introduce an analysis framework for quantifying CEV in primary cell populations and studying its functional associations in human cohorts. Analyses of 840 CEV phenotypes spanning multiple baseline measurements of 14 proteins in 28 T cell subpopulations suggest that the quantitative extent of CEV can exhibit substantial subject-to-subject differences and yet remain stable within healthy individuals over months. We linked CEV to age and disease-associated genetic polymorphisms, thus implicating CEV as a biomarker of aging and disease susceptibility and suggesting that it might play an important role in health and disease. Our dataset, interactive figures, and software for computing CEV with flow cytometry data provide a resource for exploring CEV functions.
Laboratory of Systems Biology and Trans-NIH Center for Human Immunology