All life begins with a single cell. How can a community of cells—e.g., human tissues, microbial biofilms, and cancerous tumors—produce collective properties not shared by any one individual? Understanding how cells communicate is critical to understanding this developmental process of unguided design. Communication arises from the combination of genetic programming within cells and physical interactions between cells that result in their arrangement in space and time. Genetic programming drives the decision-making processes of individual cells. Spatiotemporal organization applies logic to the coordination of these decisions between cells by constraining the sets of interacting partner cells as a function of time. Dissecting this interplay will grant insights into the fundamental forces that shape the diversity of life on Earth, from bacteria to humans.
My Ph.D research with Jeff Hasty focused on engineering approaches to building genetic circuits, with a particular emphasis on their coupling across space and time. One insight from this work was how macroscopic synchronization can arise from the synergistic combination of two differently diffusing messengers—strong local coupling by quorum sensing and weak global coupling by H2O2 vapor (see videos below). My postdoc research with Gurol Suel involves biological and biophysical approaches to understanding how the unique properties of multicellular communities arise, taking the bacterial biofilm as a model system. In particular, we are investigating how collective dynamics during biofilm development can give rise to community properties such as drug resistance.