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Open Access Research article

Microtubule self-organisation by reaction-diffusion processes causes collective transport and organisation of cellular particles

Nicolas Glade12, Jacques Demongeot2 and James Tabony1*

Author Affiliations

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

2 Institut d'Informatique et de Mathématiques Appliquées de Grenoble, Laboratoire des Techniques de l'Imagerie, de la Modélisation et de la Cognition, Faculté de Médecine, Domaine de la Merci, 38706 La Tronche Cedex, France

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BMC Cell Biology 2004, 5:23  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-5-23

Published: 3 June 2004



The transport of intra-cellular particles by microtubules is a major biological function. Under appropriate in vitro conditions, microtubule preparations behave as a 'complex' system and show 'emergent' phenomena. In particular, they form dissipative structures that self-organise over macroscopic distances by a combination of reaction and diffusion.


Here, we show that self-organisation also gives rise to a collective transport of colloidal particles along a specific direction. Particles, such as polystyrene beads, chromosomes, nuclei, and vesicles are carried at speeds of several microns per minute. The process also results in the macroscopic self-organisation of these particles. After self-organisation is completed, they show the same pattern of organisation as the microtubules. Numerical simulations of a population of growing and shrinking microtubules, incorporating experimentally realistic reaction dynamics, predict self-organisation. They forecast that during self-organisation, macroscopic parallel arrays of oriented microtubules form which cross the reaction space in successive waves. Such travelling waves are capable of transporting colloidal particles. The fact that in the simulations, the aligned arrays move along the same direction and at the same speed as the particles move, suggest that this process forms the underlying mechanism for the observed transport properties.


This process constitutes a novel physical chemical mechanism by which chemical energy is converted into collective transport of colloidal particles along a given direction. Self-organisation of this type provides a new mechanism by which intra cellular particles such as chromosomes and vesicles can be displaced and simultaneously organised by microtubules. It is plausible that processes of this type occur in vivo.