Topological defects control collective dynamics in neural progenitor cell cultures

Nature. 2017 Apr 12;545(7654):327-331. doi: 10.1038/nature22321. Online ahead of print.


Cultured stem cells have become a standard platform not only for regenerative medicine and developmental biology but also for biophysical studies. Yet, the characterization of cultured stem cells at the level of morphology and of the macroscopic patterns resulting from cell-to-cell interactions remains largely qualitative. Here we report on the collective dynamics of cultured murine neural progenitor cells (NPCs), which are multipotent stem cells that give rise to cells in the central nervous system. At low densities, NPCs moved randomly in an amoeba-like fashion. However, NPCs at high density elongated and aligned their shapes with one another, gliding at relatively high velocities. Although the direction of motion of individual cells reversed stochastically along the axes of alignment, the cells were capable of forming an aligned pattern up to length scales similar to that of the migratory stream observed in the adult brain. The two-dimensional order of alignment within the culture showed a liquid-crystalline pattern containing interspersed topological defects with winding numbers of +1/2 and -1/2 (half-integer due to the nematic feature that arises from the head-tail symmetry of cell-to-cell interaction). We identified rapid cell accumulation at +1/2 defects and the formation of three-dimensional mounds. Imaging at the single-cell level around the defects allowed us to quantify the velocity field and the evolving cell density; cells not only concentrate at +1/2 defects, but also escape from -1/2 defects. We propose a generic mechanism for the instability in cell density around the defects that arises from the interplay between the anisotropic friction and the active force field.