Fueled by recent advances in single cell biology, we are moving away from qualitative and undersampled assessments of cell identity, toward building quantitative, high-resolution cell atlases. However, it remains challenging to precisely define cell identity, leading to renewed debate surrounding this concept. Here, I present three pillars that I propose are central to the notion of cell identity: phenotype, lineage and state. I explore emerging technologies that are enabling the systematic and unbiased quantification of these properties, and outline how these efforts will enable the construction of a high-resolution, dynamic landscape of cell identity, potentially revealing its underlying molecular regulation to provide new opportunities for understanding and manipulating cell fate.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberdev169748
JournalDevelopment (Cambridge)
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 2019


  • Cell atlases
  • Cell identity
  • Cell state
  • Single cell


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