Research News

Focused & flexible: The working memory of single cells during migration

Researchers at the new Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology of Behavior - caesar have been able to show for the first time that individual migrating cells are able both to develop a robust memory for the direction of migration and to react to short-term input changes in their environment at the same time. To accomplish this, single cells continuously integrate the various information from their environment and translate it into a "molecular working memory". These fundamental new findings apply to a wide range of cell types and likely also single-cell organisms.

Many cells in our body do not stay in one place. Cells of the immune system, for example, migrate over long distances to the site of an infection, similarly as epithelial cells during wound healing. During the development of the nervous system, nerve cells migrate to their destination. Countless receptors on their surface allow migrating cells to follow gradients of chemical signals leading the way. This sounds quite simple at first, but these chemical signals do not remain constant. Very often, they are noisy and disrupted, even contradictory, and they change over time and in space. The cells therefore do not simply follow the strongest signal, but their behavior goes well beyond that. They are seemingly able to "remember" the target direction to stay on course. Nevertheless, they can still adapt to sudden changes in their environment. How a single cell can master such opposing challenges was unclear - up to now.

Researchers of the group “Cellular Computations and Learning” led by PD Dr. Aneta Koseska at the new Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology of Behavior – caesar in Bonn have now unraveled the principles underlying this astonishing ability. They developed a new theory how cell process such complex signals, tested it using computer simulations and verified the theoretical predictions in living cells by measuring the activity of cell surface receptors while cells perform complex migration tasks. Combining these approaches, they were able to show how individual cells store information about the signals of their environment at the molecular level and translate them into movement. This also allows cells to be less sensitive to disruptions in the signal. Thus, individual cells constantly integrate the complex information about the source of the signal, its strength, its current location, as well as other information of its local environment in real time. These findings, published in eLife, explain for the first time both the robust directional memory of migrating cells as well as their ability to respond to changes in their environment. The new model of a single cell molecular working memory likely applies to a wide range of cell types and single cell organisms.

Read the publication


In silico and experimental cellular response to a sequence of signals from the top (green trajectory) and bottom (yellow trajectory), showing that they maintain memory of directional migration during disruption of the signals from the top (red trajectory), but can also rapidly change direction when the new signal from the bottom is presented.

For further information please contact:

Dr. Aneta Koseska
Lise Meitner Group leader