Open Access Research article

Theoretical basis of the community effect in development

Yasushi Saka1*, Cédric Lhoussaine23, Celine Kuttler23, Ekkehard Ullner14 and Marco Thiel4

Author Affiliations

1 School of Medical Sciences, Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill, Aberdeen AB25 2ZD, UK

2 LIFL, UMR Université Lille 1/CNRS 8022, Cité Scientifique, Bat M3, 59655 Villeneuve d'Ascq, Cedex France

3 Interdisciplinary Research Institute, CNRS USR3078, Parc de la Haute Borne, 50 avenue Halley, BP70478, 59658 Villeneuve d'Ascq, France

4 Department of Physics, Institute for Complex Systems and Mathematical Biology, SUPA, University of Aberdeen, Old Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3UE, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Systems Biology 2011, 5:54  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-5-54

Published: 17 April 2011



Genetically identical cells often show significant variation in gene expression profile and behaviour even in the same physiological condition. Notably, embryonic cells destined to the same tissue maintain a uniform transcriptional regulatory state and form a homogeneous cell group. One mechanism to keep the homogeneity within embryonic tissues is the so-called community effect in animal development. The community effect is an interaction among a group of many nearby precursor cells, and is necessary for them to maintain tissue-specific gene expression and differentiate in a coordinated manner. Although it has been shown that the cell-cell communication by a diffusible factor plays a crucial role, it is not immediately obvious why a community effect needs many cells.


In this work, we propose a model of the community effect in development, which consists in a linear gene cascade and cell-cell communication. We examined the properties of the model theoretically using a combination of stochastic and deterministic modelling methods. We have derived the analytical formula for the threshold size of a cell population that is necessary for a community effect, which is in good agreement with stochastic simulation results.


Our theoretical analysis indicates that a simple model with a linear gene cascade and cell-cell communication is sufficient to reproduce the community effect in development. The model explains why a community needs many cells. It suggests that the community's long-term behaviour is independent of the initial induction level, although the initiation of a community effect requires a sufficient amount of inducing signal. The mechanism of the community effect revealed by our theoretical analysis is analogous to that of quorum sensing in bacteria. The community effect may underlie the size control in animal development and also the genesis of autosomal dominant diseases including tumorigenesis.