Making the most of what’s around

Cells living in communities specialize to make the most of resources in their local environment.
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A heat-map histogram showing the distribution of the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP) activity across a yeast colony. Image credit: Sriram Varahan (CC BY 4.0)

Under certain conditions, single-celled microbes such as yeast and bacteria form communities of many cells. In some cases, the cells in these communities specialize to perform specific roles. By specializing, these cells may help the whole community to survive in difficult environments. These co-dependent communities have some similarities to how cells specialize and work together in larger living things – like animals or plants – that in some cases can contain trillions of cells.

Research has already identified the genes involved in creating communities from a population of identical cells. It is less clear how cells within these communities become specialized to different roles. The budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae can help to reveal how genetic and environmental factors contribute to cell communities.

By growing yeast in conditions with a low level of glucose, Varahan et al. were able to form cell communities. The communities contained some specialized cells with a high level of activity in a biochemical system called the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP). This is unusual in low-glucose conditions. Further examination showed that many cells in the community produce a sugar called trehalose and, in parts of the community where trehalose levels are high, cells switch to the high PPP state and gain energy from processing trehalose.

These findings suggest that the availability of a specific nutrient (in this case, trehalose), which can be made by the cells themselves, is a sufficient signal to trigger specialization of cells. This shows how simple biochemistry can drive specialization and organization of cells. Certain infections are caused by cell communities called biofilms. These findings could also contribute to new approaches to preventing biofilms. This knowledge could in turn reveal how complex multi-cellular organisms evolved, and it may also be relevant to studies looking into the development of cancer.