Epithelial wound healing is compromised and represents an unleveraged therapeutic target in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Intestinal epithelial cells exhibit plasticity that facilitates dedifferentiation and repair during the response to injury. However, it is not known whether epithelial cells of a neighboring organ can be activated to mediate re-epithelialization in acute colitis. Histological findings of a permanent squamous tissue structure in the distal colon in human IBD could suggest diverse cellular origins of repair-associated epithelium. Here, we tested whether skin-like cells from the anus mediate colonic re-epithelialization in murinecolitis. We studied dextran sulfate sodium-induced colitis and interleukin 10-deficient colitis in transgenic mice. We performed lineage tracing, 3-dimensional (3D) imaging, single-cell transcriptomics, and biophysical modeling to map squamous cell fates and to identify squamous cell types involved in colonic repair. In acute and chronic colitis, we found a large squamous epithelium, called squamous neo-epithelium of the colon (SNEC), near the anorectal junction. Neighboring squamous cells of the anus rapidly migrate into the ulcerated colon and establish this permanent epithelium of crypt-like morphology. These squamous cells derive from a small unique transition zone, distal to the border of colonic and anal epithelium, that resists colitic injury. The cells of this zone have a pre-loaded program of colonic differentiation and further upregulate key aspects of colonic epithelium during repair. Transitional anal cells represent unique reserve cells capable of rebuilding epithelial structures in the colon after colitis. Further study of these cells could reveal novel approaches to direct mucosal healing in inflammation and disease.

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