Multicellular Systems Biology of Development

Walter de Back: Multicellular Systems Biology of Development. Technische Universit├Ąt Dresden, 2015.

Abstract

Embryonic development depends on the precise coordination of cell fate specification, patterning and morphogenesis. Although great strides have been made in the molecular understanding of each of these processes, how their interplay governs the formation of complex tissues remains poorly understood. New techniques for experimental manipulation and image quantification enable the study of development in unprecedented detail, resulting in new hypotheses on the interactions between known components. By expressing these hypotheses in terms of rules and equations, computational modeling and simulation allows one to test their consistency against experimental data. However, new computational methods are required to represent and integrate the network of interactions between gene regulation, signaling and biomechanics that extend over the molecular, cellular and tissue scales.

In this thesis, I present a framework that facilitates computational modeling of multi-scale multicellular systems and apply it to investigate pancreatic development and the formation of vascular networks. This framework is based on the integration of discrete cell-based models with continuous models for intracellular regulation and intercellular signaling. Specifically, gene regulatory networks are represented by differential equations to analyze cell fate regulation; interactions and distributions of signaling molecules are modeled by reaction-diffusion systems to study pattern formation; and cell-cell interactions are represented in cell-based models to investigate morphogenetic processes. A cell-centered approach is adopted that facilitates the integration of processes across the scales and simultaneously constrains model complexity.
The computational methods that are required for this modeling framework have been implemented in the software platform Morpheus. This modeling and simulation environment enables the development, execution and analysis of multi-scale models of multicellular systems. These models are represented in a new domain-specific markup language that separates the biological model from the computational methods and facilitates model storage and exchange. Together with a user-friendly graphical interface, Morpheus enables computational modeling of complex developmental processes without programming and thereby widens its accessibility for biologists.

To demonstrate the applicability of the framework to problems in developmental biology, two case studies are presented that address different aspects of the interplay between cell fate specification, patterning and morphogenesis. In the first, I focus on the interplay between cell fate stability and intercellular signaling. Specifically, two studies are presented that investigate how mechanisms of cell-cell communication affect cell fate regulation and spatial patterning in the pancreatic epithelium. Using bifurcation analysis and simulations of spatially coupled differential equations, it is shown that intercellular communication results in a multistability of gene expression states that can explain the scattered spatial distribution and low cell type ratio of nascent islet cells. Moreover, model analysis shows that disruption of intercellular communication induces a transition between gene expression states that can explain observations of in vitro transdifferentiation from adult acinar cells into new islet cells. These results emphasize the role of the multicellular context in cell fate regulation during development and may be used to optimize protocols for cellular reprogramming.
The second case study focuses on the feedback between patterning and morphogenesis in the context of the formation of vascular networks. Integrating a cell-based model of endothelial chemotaxis with a reaction-diffusion model representing signaling molecules and extracellular matrix, it is shown that vascular network patterns with realistic morphometry can arise when signaling factors are retained by cell-modified matrix molecules. Through the validation of this model using in vitro assays, quantitative estimates are obtained for kinetic parameters that, when used in quantitative model simulations, confirm the formation of vascular networks under measured biophysical conditions. These results demonstrate the key role of the extracellular matrix in providing spatial guidance cues, a fact that may be exploited to enhance vascularization of engineered tissues.

Together, the modeling framework, software platform and case studies presented in this thesis demonstrate how cell-centered computational modeling of multi-scale and multicellular systems provide powerful tools to help disentangle the complex interplay between cell fate specification, patterning and morphogenesis during embryonic development.

BibTeX (Download)

@phdthesis{deBack2015,
title = {Multicellular Systems Biology of Development},
author = {Walter de Back},
url = {http://walter.deback.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Thesis_WdB.pdf},
year  = {2015},
date = {2015-11-03},
school = {Technische Universit├Ąt Dresden},
abstract = {Embryonic development depends on the precise coordination of cell fate specification, patterning and morphogenesis. Although great strides have been made in the molecular understanding of each of these processes, how their interplay governs the formation of complex tissues remains poorly understood. New techniques for experimental manipulation and image quantification enable the study of development in unprecedented detail, resulting in new hypotheses on the interactions between known components. By expressing these hypotheses in terms of rules and equations, computational modeling and simulation allows one to test their consistency against experimental data. However, new computational methods are required to represent and integrate the network of interactions between gene regulation, signaling and biomechanics that extend over the molecular, cellular and tissue scales.

In this thesis, I present a framework that facilitates computational modeling of multi-scale multicellular systems and apply it to investigate pancreatic development and the formation of vascular networks. This framework is based on the integration of discrete cell-based models with continuous models for intracellular regulation and intercellular signaling. Specifically, gene regulatory networks are represented by differential equations to analyze cell fate regulation; interactions and distributions of signaling molecules are modeled by reaction-diffusion systems to study pattern formation; and cell-cell interactions are represented in cell-based models to investigate morphogenetic processes. A cell-centered approach is adopted that facilitates the integration of processes across the scales and simultaneously constrains model complexity.
The computational methods that are required for this modeling framework have been implemented in the software platform Morpheus. This modeling and simulation environment enables the development, execution and analysis of multi-scale models of multicellular systems. These models are represented in a new domain-specific markup language that separates the biological model from the computational methods and facilitates model storage and exchange. Together with a user-friendly graphical interface, Morpheus enables computational modeling of complex developmental processes without programming and thereby widens its accessibility for biologists.

To demonstrate the applicability of the framework to problems in developmental biology, two case studies are presented that address different aspects of the interplay between cell fate specification, patterning and morphogenesis. In the first, I focus on the interplay between cell fate stability and intercellular signaling. Specifically, two studies are presented that investigate how mechanisms of cell-cell communication affect cell fate regulation and spatial patterning in the pancreatic epithelium. Using bifurcation analysis and simulations of spatially coupled differential equations, it is shown that intercellular communication results in a multistability of gene expression states that can explain the scattered spatial distribution and low cell type ratio of nascent islet cells. Moreover, model analysis shows that disruption of intercellular communication induces a transition between gene expression states that can explain observations of in vitro transdifferentiation from adult acinar cells into new islet cells. These results emphasize the role of the multicellular context in cell fate regulation during development and may be used to optimize protocols for cellular reprogramming.
The second case study focuses on the feedback between patterning and morphogenesis in the context of the formation of vascular networks. Integrating a cell-based model of endothelial chemotaxis with a reaction-diffusion model representing signaling molecules and extracellular matrix, it is shown that vascular network patterns with realistic morphometry can arise when signaling factors are retained by cell-modified matrix molecules. Through the validation of this model using in vitro assays, quantitative estimates are obtained for kinetic parameters that, when used in quantitative model simulations, confirm the formation of vascular networks under measured biophysical conditions. These results demonstrate the key role of the extracellular matrix in providing spatial guidance cues, a fact that may be exploited to enhance vascularization of engineered tissues. 

Together, the modeling framework, software platform and case studies presented in this thesis demonstrate how cell-centered computational modeling of multi-scale and multicellular systems provide powerful tools to help disentangle the complex interplay between cell fate specification, patterning and morphogenesis during embryonic development.},
keywords = {cell-based modeling, CPM, development, multicellular, systems biology, thesis},
pubstate = {published},
tppubtype = {phdthesis}
}