Historic and emerging studies provide evidence for the deterioration of pancreatic α cell function and identity in diabetes mellitus. Increased access to human tissue and the availability of more sophisticated molecular technologies have revealed key insights into how α cell function and identity are preserved in healthy conditions and how they become dysfunctional in response to stress. These studies have revealed evidence of impaired glucagon secretion, shifts in α cell electrophysiology, changes in α cell mass, dysregulation of α cell transcription and α-to-β cell conversion prior to and during diabetes. In this review we outline the current state of research on α cell identity in health and disease. Evidence in model organisms and humans suggests that in addition to β cell dysfunction, diabetes is associated with a fundamental dysregulation of α cell identity. Importantly, epigenetic studies have revealed that α cells retain more poised and open chromatin at key cell-specific and diabetes-dysregulated genes, supporting the model that inherent epigenetic plasticity of α cells makes them susceptible to the transcriptional changes that potentiate the loss of identity and function seen in diabetes. Thus, further research into the maintenance of α cell identity and function is critical to fully understanding diabetes and support studies that suggest α cells could represent an alternative source of new β cells for diabetes treatment.
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