Spatially Constrained Growth Enhances Conversional Meltdown

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Cells that mutate or commit to a specialized function (differentiate) often undergo conversions that are effectively irreversible. Slowed growth of converted cells can act as a form of selection, balancing unidirectional conversion to maintain both cell types at a steady-state ratio. However, when one-way conversion is insufficiently counterbalanced by selection, the original cell type will ultimately be lost, often with negative impacts on the population's overall fitness. The critical balance between selection and conversion needed for preservation of unconverted cells and the steady-state ratio between cell types depends on the spatial circumstances under which cells proliferate. We present experimental data on a yeast strain engineered to undergo irreversible conversion: this synthetic system permits cell-type-specific fluorescent labeling and exogenous variation of the relative growth and conversion rates. We find that populations confined to grow on a flat agar surface are more susceptible than their well-mixed counterparts to fitness loss via a conversion-induced "meltdown." We then present analytical predictions for growth in several biologically relevant geometries - well-mixed liquid media, radially expanding two-dimensional colonies, and linear fronts in two dimensions - by employing analogies to the directed-percolation transition from nonequilibrium statistical physics. These simplified theories are consistent with the experimental results.




Lavrentovich, M. O., Wahl, M. E., Nelson, D. R., & Murray, A. W. (2016). Spatially Constrained Growth Enhances Conversional Meltdown. Biophysical Journal, 110(12), 2800–2808.

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