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Biol Cell. 2006 Oct;98(10):603-17.

Microtubules viewed as molecular ant colonies.

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Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique, Département Réponse et Dynamique Cellulaires, Laboratoire d'Immunochimie, INSERM U548, D.S.V, C.E.A. Grenoble, 17 rue des Martyrs, 38054 Grenoble Cedex 9, France.


Populations of ants and other social insects self-organize and develop 'emergent' properties through stigmergy in which individual ants communicate with one another via chemical trails of pheromones that attract or repulse other ants. In this way, sophisticated properties and functions develop. Under appropriate conditions, in vitro microtubule preparations, initially comprised of only tubulin and GTP, behave in a similar manner. They self-organize and develop other higher-level emergent phenomena by a process where individual microtubules are coupled together by the chemical trails they produce by their own reactive growing and shrinking. This behaviour is described and compared with the behaviour of ant colonies. Viewing microtubules as populations of molecular ants may provide new insights as to how the cytoskeleton may spontaneously develop high-level functions. It is plausible that such processes occur during the early stages of embryogenesis and in cells.

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