How cells learned to talk

18 Aug 2020

An international research team led by LMU biophysicist Ralf Jungmann is studying the process by which cells acquired the ability to communicate with, and selectively adhere to one another, thus enabling multicellular organisms to form.

© AG Jungmann

The appearance of organisms made up of many cells was one of the major evolutionary leaps in the history of life on earth. The transition from individual, free-living cells to organised populations of cells capable of forming tissues or whole organs, required a fundamental change in the way that cells interacted and communicated with each other. In particular, the available evidence suggests that the cell surface, the interface at which cell-cell communication takes place, may have been “rewired” in multicellular organisms to facilitate this complex behaviour. However, little is known about the exact nature of this cell surface “rewiring”, although molecules called tetraspanins are thought to be key factors that were involved in this process. Now, a team headed by biophysicist Ralf Jungmann, Professor of Experimental Physics at LMU and leader of a research group specializing in molecular imaging and bionanotechnology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, plans to study how the molecular organization of the cell surface was remodeled to enable communication and selective adhesion between cells – which is a prerequisite for the emergence of multicellular organisms.

They will map, at the molecular level, how tetraspanins globally influence the surface organization of an array of factors known to control cell-cell communication in multicellular organisms, and examine how this ultimately affects the ways in which cells communicate. The project will thus provide fundamental insights into how cells developed the communication infrastructure needed to assemble a multicellular organism.

In addition to Jungmann’s team, research groups led by Maartje Bastings, a professor at the School of Engineering at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), and Ian Parish, who is affiliated with the University of Melbourne and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in that city, will take part in the project. The venture is supported by a grant worth 1.5 million euros from the Volkswagen Foundation’s program “Life? – A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life”.

“We are extremely grateful for the support from the VW Foundation”, says Jungmann. “It will allow us to gain unprecedented insights into the complex spatial organization of molecules at the cell surface and its importance for multicellular life. We are looking forward to applying our expertise in materials engineering, imaging and cell biology to the understanding of intercellular communication, which will eventually allow us to modify cell surfaces and thus engineer life.”

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