Body's Cells Move like Flocks of Birds: Collective Behavior of Animals Can Help Explain Movement

By Saey, Tina Hesman | Science News, January 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

Body's Cells Move like Flocks of Birds: Collective Behavior of Animals Can Help Explain Movement


Saey, Tina Hesman, Science News


Cell biologists are finding clues from marching ants, flocking birds and other animals to learn how groups of cells move through the body.

Such studies are yielding insights about cell movement during development and during the spread of cancer. Learning about cells' social interactions may give researchers new ways to peer-pressure cells into good behavior.

Cell biologists have traditionally studied individual cells or how groups of physically connected cells move. It's only in the last few years that researchers have begun to regard cells as individuals with collective behavior. Taking cues from the linked movements of animals helps researchers "understand how cells, which everybody assumed had minds of their own, could possibly move as a group," says Brian Stramer, a cell biologist at King's College London.

Developmental biologist Roberto Mayor and colleagues have collected evidence that the migration of some important developmental cells is akin to the movement of swarming locusts. Mayor, of University College London, described the mass migration of neural crest cells December 13.

Neural crest cells are developmentally flexible cells in embryos that help form the bones and cartilage of the face, some nerves and brain cells, smooth muscle and other tissues. Some scientists have proposed that changes in early movements of these cells may lead to the juvenile-looking physical features of domesticated animals (SN: 8/23/14, p. 7).

Like locusts that cringe away from nipping neighbors, neural crest cells repel each other, thanks to a process known as "contact inhibition of locomotion," Mayor and colleagues found. Avoidance can increase the ability of cells to move in groups; cells that move astray and bump into a neighbor change course and move in the right direction again. A large crowd governed only by avoidance tactics, though, tends to break into smaller cliques, the researchers discovered in computer simulations. Cells are not just repelled by each other, they are also often attracted to other cells. That attraction causes cells to play follow-the-leader. On its own, attraction produces a group of cells that don't get very far, computer simulations showed. A balance between avoidance and attraction produces the most efficient mass migrations, the simulations suggest. …

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