Compete or coexist? Why the same mechanisms of symmetry breaking can yield distinct outcomes

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Cellular morphogenesis is governed by the prepattern based on the symmetry-breaking emergence of dense protein clusters. Thus, a cluster of active GTPase Cdc42 marks the site of nascent bud in the baker’s yeast. An important biological question is which mechanisms control the number of pattern maxima (spots) and, thus, the number of nascent cellular structures. Distinct flavors of theoretical models seem to suggest different predictions. While the classical Turing scenario leads to an array of stably coexisting multiple structures, mass-conserved models predict formation of a single spot that emerges via the greedy competition between the pattern maxima for the common molecular resources. Both the outcome and the kinetics of this competition are of significant biological importance but remained poorly explored. Recent theoretical analyses largely addressed these questions, but their results have not yet been fully appreciated by the broad biological community. Keeping mathematical apparatus and jargon to the minimum, we review the main conclusions of these analyses with their biological implications in mind. Focusing on the specific example of pattern formation by small GTPases, we speculate on the features of the patterning mechanisms that bypass competition and favor formation of multiple coexisting structures and contrast them with those of the mechanisms that harness competition to form unique cellular structures.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2020


  • symmetry breaking
  • activator-substrate mechanism
  • mass-conserved models
  • cell polarity
  • pattern formation
  • small GTPases


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