NYMC Faculty Publications


Interplay of Mesoscale Physics and Agent-Like Behaviors in the Parallel Evolution of Aggregative Multicellularity

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Review Article

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Cell Biology and Anatomy

Second Department

Physical Therapy


Myxobacteria and dictyostelids are prokaryotic and eukaryotic multicellular lineages, respectively, that after nutrient depletion aggregate and develop into structures called fruiting bodies. The developmental processes and resulting morphological outcomes resemble one another to a remarkable extent despite their independent origins, the evolutionary distance between them and the lack of traceable homology in molecular mechanisms. We hypothesize that the morphological parallelism between the two lineages arises as the consequence of the interplay within multicellular aggregates between generic processes, physical and physicochemical processes operating similarly in living and non-living matter at the mesoscale (~10-3-10-1 m) and agent-like behaviors, unique to living systems and characteristic of the constituent cells, considered as autonomous entities acting according to internal rules in a shared environment. Here, we analyze the contributions of generic and agent-like determinants in myxobacteria and dictyostelid development and their roles in the generation of their common traits. Consequent to aggregation, collective cell-cell contacts mediate the emergence of liquid-like properties, making nascent multicellular masses subject to novel patterning and morphogenetic processes. In both lineages, this leads to behaviors such as streaming, rippling, and rounding-up, as seen in non-living fluids. Later the aggregates solidify, leading them to exhibit additional generic properties and motifs. Computational models suggest that the morphological phenotypes of the multicellular masses deviate from the predictions of generic physics due to the contribution of agent-like behaviors of cells such as directed migration, quiescence, and oscillatory signal transduction mediated by responses to external cues. These employ signaling mechanisms that reflect the evolutionary histories of the respective organisms. We propose that the similar developmental trajectories of myxobacteria and dictyostelids are more due to shared generic physical processes in coordination with analogous agent-type behaviors than to convergent evolution under parallel selection regimes. Insights from the biology of these aggregative forms may enable a unified understanding of developmental evolution, including that of animals and plants.

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