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Winter 2016

Surface waves influence how a cell divides

Copyright: Dr Andrew Goryachev

News from: The University of Edinburgh

A group of researchers from The University of Edinburgh working in close collaboration with US colleagues have discovered a novel phenomenon that could give a new insight into the final stages of cell division – the separation of two daughter cells – and explain puzzling experimental observations made several decades ago.

Copyright: Dr Andrew Goryachev
Researchers for the first time observed dramatic waves sweeping the surface of frog and starfish embryonic cells preparing for division. Copyright: Andrew Goryachev

A consortium of computational biologists from The University of Edinburgh and the two leading experimental cell and developmental biology groups in the US discovered that, in preparation for the final separation stage of the cell cycle known as cytokinesis, the cellular surface becomes an excitable system. The ability to respond with a large spike of activity to a small stimulus, or excitability, has long been known to explain propagation of neural pulses and muscular contractions.

Now the researchers report in Nature Cell Biology that, unexpectedly, excitability plays a crucial role in the cell’s decision where to place the final cut between the nascent daughter cells. Errors in this process are known to cause missegregation of genetic material and, thus, cancer.

One of the fundamental properties of excitable behaviour, crucial for the activity of nerve and muscle cells, is the ability to propagate as waves, such as the waves of contraction recorded in human hearts. The use of cutting edge microscopy tools and novel reagents based on the technology of fluorescent proteins permitted the researchers for the first time to observe dramatic waves sweeping the surface of frog and starfish embryonic cells preparing for division.

Dr Andrew Goryachev, Reader in Computational Cell Biology at The University of Edinburgh, said: “Excitability is a ubiquitous property of many biological systems. Surprisingly, most of experimental biologists still think of it solely as an attribute of nerve cells. One of our roles as computational modelers is to raise the awareness of our experimental colleagues of the fundamental nature of physico-chemical principles that underlie what they observe under their microscopes.”

ENDS