New forms of cell division that are caused by protein waves discovered

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At the top of the image: sequence of microscopy images of a cell division by protein waves. The protein waves are coloured green and move in the opposite directions, thus dividing the cell into two daughter cells. At the bottom of the image: sequence of images resulting from the computational simulation of the same cell separation process.

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Sergio Alonso, researcher from the Departament of Physics of the UPC

Researchers from the UPC’s Department of Physics and the University of Potsdam, Germany, have discovered a new form of cell division that is caused by protein waves in the framework of an international collaboration project. This discovery opens the way for new applications in synthetic biology and may serve as a paradigm for implementing a self-organised proliferation strategy in artificial cells.

Sep 03, 2020

The researchers from the Computational Biology and Complex Systems Group (BIOCOM-SC) of the Department of Physics of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) Sergio Alonso and Francesc Font, now in the Mathematical Research Centre, in collaboration with researchers from the Biological Physics Group of the University of Potsdam, Germany, have discovered a new form of cell division that is triggered by protein waves inside cells. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

According to the researchers, this new form of cell division could be used in synthetic biology. There are many efforts today to produce simple artificial models of cells in a laboratory for study purposes, and cell division by protein waves may be a promising alternative to obtain simple cell models.

Observed in the laboratory and reconstructed using computer models
The shape of cells is determined by a protein scaffold, the cytoskeleton. One of the most important proteins in the cytoskeleton, actin, forms branched filament structures that are constantly changed and remodelled by the cell. The filaments can grow or shrink, causing the cell to change shape. The movement of white blood cells, for example, but also that of metastatic tumour cells, is based on this mechanism.

In traditional cell division, which is also known as mitosis, daughter cells are pinched off with the help of a protein ring. The process is very complex and requires a high level of coordination for applying this mechanism to synthetic cells, especially for the correct positioning of the protein ring.

Biophysicists at the University of Potsdam have observed under the microscope dynamic changes in the cytoskeleton in giant cells of the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Under certain conditions, accumulations of cytoskeletal proteins can move through the cell in the form of a wave. If such a protein wave reaches the edge of the cell, it pushes the membrane that surrounds the cell outwards. The deformation caused in this way becomes ever stronger and eventually leads to a daughter cell separating from the rest of the giant cell the size of the wave that caused the division.

Researchers from the UPC’s Department of Physics have developed a computer model to reconstruct the cell division caused by protein waves in simulated cells, which paves the way for better understanding the prerequisites for generating this process.

This new mechanism of cell division opens the door to potential applications in synthetic biology—in designing and building artificially produced cells—and may serve as a basis for implementing a self-organised proliferation strategy in artificial cells.