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PLoS By Category | Recent PLoS Articles
Biophysics - Microbiology - Neuroscience - Oncology - Physics - Physiology - Science Policy

“Self-Assisted” Amoeboid Navigation in Complex Environments
Published: Thursday, August 04, 2011
Author: Inbal Hecht et al.

by Inbal Hecht, Herbert Levine, Wouter-Jan Rappel, Eshel Ben-Jacob


Living cells of many types need to move in response to external stimuli in order to accomplish their functional tasks; these tasks range from wound healing to immune response to fertilization. While the directional motion is typically dictated by an external signal, the actual motility is also restricted by physical constraints, such as the presence of other cells and the extracellular matrix. The ability to successfully navigate in the presence of obstacles is not only essential for organisms, but might prove relevant in the study of autonomous robotic motion.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We study a computational model of amoeboid chemotactic navigation under differing conditions, from motion in an obstacle-free environment to navigation between obstacles and finally to moving in a maze. We use the maze as a simple stand-in for a motion task with severe constraints, as might be expected in dense extracellular matrix. Whereas agents using simple chemotaxis can successfully navigate around small obstacles, the presence of large barriers can often lead to agent trapping. We further show that employing a simple memory mechanism, namely secretion of a repulsive chemical by the agent, helps the agent escape from such trapping.


Our main conclusion is that cells employing simple chemotactic strategies will often be unable to navigate through maze-like geometries, but a simple chemical marker mechanism (which we refer to as “self-assistance”) significantly improves success rates. This realization provides important insights into mechanisms that might be employed by real cells migrating in complex environments as well as clues for the design of robotic navigation strategies. The results can be extended to more complicated multi-cellular systems and can be used in the study of mammalian cell migration and cancer metastasis.