C. elegans is an animal with few cells, but a striking diversity of cell types. Here, we characterize the molecular basis for their specification by profiling the transcriptomes of 84,625 single embryonic cells. We identify 284 terminal and pre-terminal cell types, mapping most single cell transcriptomes to their exact position in C. elegans’ invariant lineage. We use these annotations to perform the first quantitative analysis of the relationship between lineage and the transcriptome for a whole organism. We find that a strong lineage-transcriptome correlation in the early embryo breaks down in the final two cell divisions as cells adopt their terminal fates and that most distinct lineages that produce the same anatomical cell type converge to a homogenous transcriptomic state. Users can explore our data with a graphical application “VisCello”.
* co-first authors
** corresponding authors