Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals

Gábor Balázsi, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and James J. Collins Balázsi, Gábor, Alexander van Oudenaarden, and James J. Collins. 2011. “Cellular Decision Making and Biological Noise: From Microbes to Mammals.” Cell 144 (6) (March 18): 910–925. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.01.030.

In this review article, the authors discuss a range of research about cellular decision making, "whereby cells assume different, functionally important and heritable fates without an associated genetic or environmental difference" (910). While not well understood, the authors explain that cells from viruses, bacteria, yeast, plants, and mammals all respond dynamically to environmental cues. This includes a variation of cellular response within the same environment, thus stochastic response would also be driven by biological noise. Their consideration of viruses suggests that the term cellular response is a "misnomer," where "decisions are taken by more or less autonomous replicating systems that reside inside and manipulate the behavior of carrier cells" (912). The crux of their argument is that cellular decision making is a fundamental biological property that is highly dynamic and dependent on both the cell's environment and "intrinsic molecular noise" (922). The authors identify cellular decision making, along with "environmental sensing and cell-cell communication" as one of the "three key processes underlying pattern formation and development from microbes to mammals" (922).

This article offers a relational understanding of underlying cellular processes common to all creatures. It is an understanding that challenges strict DNA-as-code understandings of biological life. That these processes are relational and dynamic to the cell's environment would suggest a certain correlation with Simondon's individual-milieu dyad, one which is materially and situationally specific. However, the phrase “decision making” is arguably too closely aligned with cognition. I will use this essay, along with other essays on the dynamics of life in nonhuman entities to further arguments of Simondon's concept of individuation and his individual-milieu dyad.