Shift from stochastic to spatially-ordered expression of serine-glycine synthesis enzymes in 3D microtumors

Sci Rep. 2018 Jun 20;8(1):9388. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-27266-8.


Cell-to-cell differences in protein expression in normal tissues and tumors are a common phenomenon, but the underlying principles that govern this heterogeneity are largely unknown. Here, we show that in monolayer cancer cell-line cultures, the expression of the five metabolic enzymes of serine-glycine synthesis (SGS), including its rate-limiting enzyme, phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH), displays stochastic cell-to-cell variation. By contrast, in cancer cell line-derived three-dimensional (3D) microtumors PHGDH expression is restricted to the outermost part of the microtumors' outer proliferative cell layer, while the four other SGS enzymes display near uniform expression throughout the microtumor. A mathematical model suggests that metabolic stress in the microtumor core activates factors that restrict PHGDH expression. Thus, intracellular enzyme expression in growing cell ecosystems can shift to spatially ordered patterns in 3D structured environments due to emergent cell-cell communication, with potential implications for the design of effective anti-metabolic cancer therapies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Communication / physiology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / physiology
  • Ecosystem
  • Glycine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Ki-67 Antigen / metabolism
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Phosphoglycerate Dehydrogenase / metabolism*
  • Serine / metabolism


  • Ki-67 Antigen
  • Serine
  • Phosphoglycerate Dehydrogenase
  • Glycine