A Computational Approach to Understand In Vitro Alveolar Morphogenesis
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004819
Primary human alveolar type II (AT II) epithelial cells maintained in Matrigel cultures form alveolar-like cysts (ALCs) using a cytogenesis mechanism that is different from that of other studied epithelial cell types: neither proliferation nor death is involved. During ALC formation, AT II cells engage simultaneously in fundamentally different, but not fully characterized activities. Mechanisms enabling these activities and the roles they play during different process stages are virtually unknown. Identifying, characterizing, and understanding the activities and mechanisms are essential to achieving deeper insight into this fundamental feature of morphogenesis. That deeper insight is needed to answer important questions. When and how does an AT cell choose to switch from one activity to another? Why does it choose one action rather than another? We report obtaining plausible answers using a rigorous, multi-attribute modeling and simulation approach that leveraged earlier efforts by using new, agent and object-oriented capabilities. We discovered a set of cell-level operating principles that enabled in silico cells to self-organize and generate systemic cystogenesis phenomena that are quantitatively indistinguishable from those observed in vitro. Success required that the cell components be quasi-autonomous. As simulation time advances, each in silico cell autonomously updates its environment information to reclassify its condition. It then uses the axiomatic operating principles to execute just one action for each possible condition. The quasi-autonomous actions of individual in silico cells were sufficient for developing stable cyst-like structures. The results strengthen in silico to in vitro mappings at three levels: mechanisms, behaviors, and operating principles, thereby achieving a degree of validation and enabling answering the questions posed. We suggest that the in silico operating principles presented may have a biological counterpart and that a semiquantitative mapping exists between in silico causal events and in vitro causal events.