The ability to sense the environment is heterogeneously distributed in cell populations

Elife. 2024 Jan 31:12:RP87747. doi: 10.7554/eLife.87747.


Channel capacity of signaling networks quantifies their fidelity in sensing extracellular inputs. Low estimates of channel capacities for several mammalian signaling networks suggest that cells can barely detect the presence/absence of environmental signals. However, given the extensive heterogeneity and temporal stability of cell state variables, we hypothesize that the sensing ability itself may depend on the state of the cells. In this work, we present an information-theoretic framework to quantify the distribution of sensing abilities from single-cell data. Using data on two mammalian pathways, we show that sensing abilities are widely distributed in the population and most cells achieve better resolution of inputs compared to an 'average cell'. We verify these predictions using live-cell imaging data on the IGFR/FoxO pathway. Importantly, we identify cell state variables that correlate with cells' sensing abilities. This information-theoretic framework will significantly improve our understanding of how cells sense in their environment.

Keywords: human; information transfer; maximum entropy; physics of living systems; signaling networks.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Mammals
  • Proteins*
  • Signal Transduction*


  • Proteins