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Coupled active systems encode emergent behavioral dynamics of the unicellular predator Lacrymaria olor

By Scott M Coyle, Ellie M. Flaum, Hongquan Li, Deepak Krishnamurthy, Manu Prakash

Posted 03 Sep 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/406595

Multiple active systems in a cell work together to produce sophisticated cellular behaviors such as motility and search. However, it is often unclear how this coupling specifies the complex emergent dynamics that define such behaviors. As a model system, we analyzed the hunting strategy of Lacrymaria olor, a unicellular predatory ciliate that uses extreme morphological changes to extend, contract and whip an apparent "cell neck" over many body lengths to capture prey. Tracking millions of unique subcellular morphologies over time revealed that these fast dynamics encode a comprehensive local search behavior apparent only at longer timescales. This hunting behavior emerges as a tug-of-war between active sub-cellular structures that use surface cilia and cortex contractility to deform the structure of the neck. The resulting search space can be described mathematically using a small number of normal shape modes that change amplitude rapidly during hunts. The distribution of these shape modes in space and time reveals a transition point between tense and compressed neck morphologies at the mean neck length, such that new shapes are readily sampled by repeatedly extending and retracting across this critical length. Molecular perturbations to the cell-signaling controller show that coupling between ciliary and contractile programs is needed to maintain this length/shape relationship; neither system alone provides the dynamic repertoire of shapes necessary for comprehensive search. Our results highlight the utility of coupling antagonistic active systems as a strategy for encoding or engineering complex behaviors in molecular machines.

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