The living silly putty, episode 2: the spreading!

Douezan et al PNAS 2011

In episode one of this series, I presented a research paper by Stéphane Douezan and his colleagues in which they studied a ball of cells (called a cellular aggregate) sitting on a flat surface. After introducing the concept of cellular aggregate wetting by comparing it to the classical system of a drop of water, today I present the main part of the paper which looks at the dynamics of spreading of the cellular aggregate. I strongly suggest that the reader reads the first post before reading this one.

The living silly putty

Have you ever noticed how drops of water have different shapes on a clean piece of glass and in a frying pan? The frying pan surface is coated with a hydrophobic ("water-repellant") molecule so it does not stick to food, which typically contains a lot of water. As a result, a drop of water will take on a roughly spherical shape to reduce as much as possible its area of contact with the frying pan. If a surface has an even more hydrophobic coating than a frying pan, the drop can even reach a perfectly spherical shape (this is called ultrahydrophobicity).

Embryonic cell sorting: the living Rubik’s cube

We all started as one single cell. This cell contains all the information to make a complex adult body. Developmental biologists are trying to understand how this cell will first divide to make a dull ball of cells which will then start making dramatic changes in shape to pattern the future organs of the body. One of the difficult questions is how cells that will form the same structure are able to find one another and sort from the mix of other cell types.