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Individual Cells Are Smarter Than Thought

Image Cells
To divide or not? Single cells make their decisions much more autonomously than previously thought. (Image: iStock/solvod)

Humans make decisions based on various sensory information which is integrated into a holistic percept by the brain. But how do single cells make decisions? Much more autonomously than previously thought, as researchers from the University of Zurich have now shown. Cells base their decisions not only on outside signals like growth factors, but also on information they receive from inside the cell. This can even lead to treatment-resistant cancer cells.

The researchers found that the variability in the activities of individual sensors across cells is tightly linked to variation in internal cues. For example, the abundance of mitochondria, the cells’ power stations, fundamentally affects how an external stimulus is perceived by a single cell. Furthermore, each sensor integrates different cues from inside the cell. When the researchers evaluated an important decision of a single cell – namely to proliferate or to stay quiescent upon a growth stimulus – they found that the cell’s choice was mediated by the perception of multiple sensors and was predictably modulated by cues of the cell’s internal state.

Press release UZH