Here, we exploit the hair follicle to define the point at which stem cells (SCs) become irreversibly committed along a differentiation lineage. Employing histone and nucleotide double-pulse-chase and lineage tracing, we show that the early SC descendents en route to becoming transit-amplifying cells retain stemness and slow-cycling properties and home back to the bulge niche when hair growth stops. These become the primary SCs for the next hair cycle, whereas initial bulge SCs become reserves for injury. Proliferating descendents further en route irreversibly lose their stemness, although they retain many SC markers and survive, unlike their transit-amplifying progeny. Remarkably, these progeny also home back to the bulge. Combining purification and gene expression analysis with differential ablation and functional experiments, we define critical functions for these non-SC niche residents and unveil the intriguing concept that an irreversibly committed cell in an SC lineage can become an essential contributor to the niche microenvironment.
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