Fluidity in cell fate or heterogeneity in cell identity is an interesting cell biological phenomenon, which at the same time poses a significant obstacle for cancer therapy. The mammary gland seems a relatively straightforward organ with stromal cells and basal- and luminal- epithelial cell types. In reality, the epithelial cell fates are much more complex and heterogeneous, which is the topic of this review. Part of the complexity comes from the dynamic nature of this organ: the primitive epithelial tree undergoes extensively remodeling and expansion during puberty, pregnancy, and lactation and, unlike most other organs, the bulk of mammary gland development occurs late, during puberty. An active cell biological debate has focused on lineage commitment to basal- and luminal- epithelial cell fates by epithelial progenitor and stem cells; processes that are also relevant to cancer biology. In this review, we discuss the current understanding of heterogeneity in mammary gland and recent insights obtained through lineage tracing, signaling assays, and organoid cultures. Lastly, we relate these insights to cancer and ongoing efforts to resolve heterogeneity in breast cancer with single-cell RNAseq approaches.
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