Background: Cell differentiation has long been theorized to represent a switch in a bistable system, and recent experimental work in micro-organisms has revealed bistable dynamics in small gene regulatory circuits. However, the dynamics of mammalian cell differentiation has not been analyzed with respect to bistability.
Results: Here we studied how HL60 promyelocytic precursor cells transition to the neutrophil cell lineage after stimulation with the differentiation inducer, dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). Single cell analysis of the expression kinetics of the differentiation marker CD11b (Mac-1) revealed all-or-none switch-like behavior, in contrast to the seemingly graduated change of expression when measured as a population average. Progression from the precursor to the differentiated state was detected as a discrete transition between low (CD11bLow) and high (CD11bHigh) expressor subpopulations distinguishable in a bimodal distribution. Hysteresis in the dependence of CD11b expression on DMSO dose suggests that this bimodality may reflect a bistable dynamic. But when an "unswitched" (CD11bLow) subpopulation of cells in the bistable/bimodal regime was isolated and cultured, these cells were found to differ from undifferentiated precursor cells in that they were "primed" to differentiate.
Conclusion: These findings indicate that differentiation of human HL60 cells into neutrophils does not result from a simple state transition of a bistable switch as traditionally modeled. Instead, mammalian differentiation appears to be a multi-step process in a high-dimensional system, a result which is consistent with the high connectivity of the cells' complex underlying gene regulatory network.