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PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Mar 28;15(3):e1006577. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006577. eCollection 2019 Mar.

Agent-based modeling of morphogenetic systems: Advantages and challenges.

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The Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America.


The complexity of morphogenesis poses a fundamental challenge to understanding the mechanisms governing the formation of biological patterns and structures. Over the past century, numerous processes have been identified as critically contributing to morphogenetic events, but the interplay between the various components and aspects of pattern formation have been much harder to grasp. The combination of traditional biology with mathematical and computational methods has had a profound effect on our current understanding of morphogenesis and led to significant insights and advancements in the field. In particular, the theoretical concepts of reaction-diffusion systems and positional information, proposed by Alan Turing and Lewis Wolpert, respectively, dramatically influenced our general view of morphogenesis, although typically in isolation from one another. In recent years, agent-based modeling has been emerging as a consolidation and implementation of the two theories within a single framework. Agent-based models (ABMs) are unique in their ability to integrate combinations of heterogeneous processes and investigate their respective dynamics, especially in the context of spatial phenomena. In this review, we highlight the benefits and technical challenges associated with ABMs as tools for examining morphogenetic events. These models display unparalleled flexibility for studying various morphogenetic phenomena at multiple levels and have the important advantage of informing future experimental work, including the targeted engineering of tissues and organs.

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