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Curr Opin Genet Dev. 2012 Dec;22(6):619-26. doi: 10.1016/j.gde.2012.10.004. Epub 2012 Nov 28.

Towards a statistical mechanics of cell fate decisions.

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Department of Experimental and Health Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, 08003 Barcelona, Spain.


The spatiotemporal organization of a developing organism requires carefully orchestrated sequences of cellular differentiation events. These events are triggered by decisions made by individual cells about their fate, which are in turn controlled by gene and protein regulation processes. While these cell fate decisions are subject to stochasticity and are not reproducible at the single-cell level, they result in highly consistent, almost deterministic patterns at the level of the whole cell population. The question of how this macroscopic order arises from a disordered microscopic behaviour is still outstanding, and is reminiscent of problems in physical systems that are readily addressed by statistical mechanics. Here we review recent studies that are beginning to provide the data needed to address this question and discuss conceptual ideas that might be used in a theoretical understanding of cell fate decision processes, emphasizing the challenges that biology poses to the application of statistical mechanics approaches to developmental biology.

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