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Single-cell variability in multicellular organisms

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Original languageEnglish
Article number345
Number of pages8
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2018


Noisy gene expression is of fundamental importance to single cells, and is therefore widely studied in single-celled organisms. Extending these studies to multicellular organisms is challenging since their cells are generally not isolated, but individuals in a tissue. Cell-cell coupling via signalling, active transport or pure diffusion, ensures that tissue-bound cells are neither fully independent of each other, nor an entirely homogeneous population. In this article, we show that increasing the strength of coupling between cells can either increase or decrease the single-cell variability (and, therefore, the heterogeneity of the tissue), depending on the statistical properties of the underlying genetic network. We confirm these predictions using spatial stochastic simulations of simple genetic networks, and experimental data from animal and plant tissues. The results suggest that cell-cell coupling may be one of several noise-control strategies employed by multicellular organisms, and highlight the need for a deeper understanding of multicellular behaviour.

    Research areas

  • Cellular noise, Gene regulatory networks

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