Caenorhabditis 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 86,024 single embryonic cells. We identify 502 terminal and pre-terminal cell types, mapping most single-cell transcriptomes to their exact position in C. elegans’ invariant lineage. Using these annotations, we find that: 1) the correlation between a cell’s lineage and its transcriptome increases from mid to late gastrulation, then falls dramatically as cells in the nervous system and pharynx adopt their terminal fates; 2) multilineage priming contributes to the differentiation of sister cells at dozens of lineage branches; and 3) most distinct lineages that produce the same anatomical cell type converge to a homogenous transcriptomic state.
* co-first authors
** co-corresponding authors