Sgro Lands Grant to Study One of the National Science Foundation’s Big 10 Ideas

By Liz Sheeley

A series of time-lapse images show how social amoeba cluster together for survival after starvation. Images provided by Assistant Professor Allyson Sgro (BME)

Assistant Professor Allyson Sgro (BME) has been awarded a two-year $150,000 grant under the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 10 Big Ideas program to elucidate how cells work together to form groups.

“One of the goals of the Biological Design Center at BU, which I am a part of, is to understand life’s design principles,” says Sgro. “When I saw this call for proposals I realized that my work and the Center’s goal fit perfectly.”

Sgro’s research focuses on understanding how cells work together and make decisions to form groups. She will study how cells use both short- and long-range communication to do things like synchronize behaviors and cluster together. Then, Sgro will work with a collaborator at Princeton University to build a mathematical model of how feedbacks between these types of communication allow individuals in groups to coordinate their behavior.

To study this phenomenon, the researchers will use the social amoeba, a long-standing model organism for collective behavior. The social amoeba, a type of slime mold, communicates between cells through a molecule that is used for communication inside the cells of many different organisms. Because it is a common signaling molecule, there are existing sensors that the researchers can re-engineer to visualize long-range communication dynamics between the slime mold cells. The short-range communication will be mapped by visualizing how the cells control how well they stick together when they interact and touch each other.

Sgro hopes that with a mathematical framework that captures how single cells use feedback to work together in groups, they will be able to identify general practices by which all organisms control group behavior.