Unveiling the fate of cells

Universal scaling behavior of clone sizes helps to decipher tissue development

High-density labelling of mouse embryo heart. Picture: Steffen Rulands, MPI-PKS / CSBD

The development of an organism relies on the tightly orchestrated behavior of many cells. How do these cells self-organize in order to build complex structures like the heart or the brain? To achieve this, the fate of these cells must be precisely regulated. Understanding the mechanisms of cell fate regulation is key for treating diseases that occur upon dysregulation, such as cancer or diabetes. The fate behavior of stem and progenitor cells is reflected in the evolution of their progeny, termed clones, which serve as a key experimental observable. But what can we actually learn from such clones about the processes that regulate cell fate during tissue development?

Drawing on the results of genetic tracing studies, Steffen Rulands, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems (MPI-PKS), his team and collaborators show that although cells follow complex developmental programs the sizes of clones follow universal scaling behavior. Steffen Rulands, who is also a member of the CSBD, explains in his recent publication in Nature Physics how the identification of this universal scaling dependences may allow lineage-specific information to be distilled from experiments. The study of his group describes how core concepts of statistical physics emerge in an unexpected context by identifying cellular systems as a laboratory to study non-equilibrium statistical physics.

Original Publication:

Steffen Rulands, Fabienne Lescroart, Samira Chabab, Christopher J. Hindley, Nicole Prior, Magdalena K. Sznurkowska, Meritxell Huch, Anna Philpott, Cedric Blanpain & Benjamin D. Simons: Universality of clone dynamics during tissue development, Nature Physics (2018), doi:10.1038/s41567-018-0055-6