2019-11-27T13:43:46Z (GMT) by Xiaoling Zhai
Reliable signal transmission among cells is important for long-range coordination. While higher organisms have designated structures for signal transmission, such as axons, it remains unclear how simpler communities of cells are organized to relay signals. Furthermore, many biological systems exhibit spatial heterogeneity, which can interrupt signal propagation. In this thesis, we investigate this problem by modeling the spatial organization and dynamics of electrochemical signaling, and we compare our results to experiments from our collaborators on Bacillus subtilis bacterial biofilms. The experiments show that only a fraction of cells participates in signal propagation and that these cells are spatially clustered with a size distribution that follows a power-law decay. These observations suggest that the fraction of participating cells is just at the tipping point between a disconnected and a fully connected conduit for signal transmission. We utilize percolation theory and a minimal FitzHugh-Nagumo-type excitable dynamics model to test this hypothesis, and genetically modified biofilms with altered structure and dynamics to validate our modeling. Our results suggest that the biofilm is organized near the critical percolation point in order to negotiate the benefit and cost of long-range signal transmission. Then, more detailed experiments show that the participation probability is correlated from cell to cell and varies in space. We use these observations to develop an enhanced percolation model, and show using simulations and a renormalization argument that the main conclusions are unaffected by these features. Finally, we use our dynamic model to investigate the effects of heterogeneity beyond the radial wave regime and into the spiral wave regime. We find that spatial correlations in the heterogeneity promote or suppress spiraling depending on the parameters, a surprising feature that we explain by demonstrating that these spirals form by distinct mechanisms. We characterize the dependence of the spiral period on the heterogeneity using techniques from percolation theory. Taken together, our results reveal that the spatial structure of cell-to-cell heterogeneity can have important consequences for signal propagation in cellular communities.