Stem cells in stratified epithelia are generally believed to adhere to a non-hierarchical single-progenitor model. Using lineage tracing and genetic label-retention assays, we show that the hard palatal epithelium of the oral cavity is unique in displaying marked proliferative heterogeneity. We identify a previously uncharacterized, infrequently-dividing stem cell population that resides within a candidate niche, the junctional zone (JZ). JZ stem cells tend to self-renew by planar symmetric divisions, respond to masticatory stresses, and promote wound healing, whereas frequently-dividing cells reside outside the JZ, preferentially renew through perpendicular asymmetric divisions, and are less responsive to injury. LRIG1 is enriched in the infrequently-dividing population in homeostasis, dynamically changes expression in response to tissue stresses, and promotes quiescence, whereas Igfbp5 preferentially labels a rapidly-growing, differentiation-prone population. These studies establish the oral mucosa as an important model system to study epithelial stem cell populations and how they respond to tissue stresses.
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