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Inferring cell state from cell behavior


Cell populations display heterogeneous and dynamic phenotypic states at multiple scales. Similar to molecular features commonly used to explore cell heterogeneity, cell behavior is a rich phenotypic space that may allow for identification of relevant cell states. Inference of cell state from cell behavior across a time course may enable the investigation of dynamics of transitions between heterogeneous cell states, a task difficult to perform with destructive molecular observations. Cell motility is one such easily observed cell behavior with known biomedical relevance. To investigate heterogeneous cell states and their dynamics through the lens of cell behavior, we developed Heteromotility and Lanternfish, software tools to extract quantitative motility features from timelapse cell images. In mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs), myoblasts, and muscle stem cells (MuSCs), Heteromotility analysis identifies multiple motility phenotypes within the population. In all three systems, the motility state identity of individual cells is dynamic. We demonstrate that using deep neural networks and heuristic machine learning methods, cell types and states can be discriminated in multiple systems. Quantification of state transitions reveals that MuSCs undergoing activation transition through progressive motility states toward the myoblast phenotype. Transition rates during MuSC activation suggest non-linear kinetics. By probability flux analysis, we find that this MuSC motility state system breaks detailed balance, while the MEF and myoblast systems do not. Balanced behavior state transitions can be captured by equilibrium formalisms, while unbalanced switching between states violates equilibrium conditions and would require an external driving force. Our data indicate that the system regulating cell behavior can be decomposed into a set of attractor states which depend on the identity of the cell, together with a set of transitions between states. These results support a conceptual view of cell populations as dynamical systems, responding to inputs from signaling pathways and generating outputs in the form of state transitions and observable motile behaviors.

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