, Volume 215, Issue 1, pp 46-52
Date: 30 Nov 2004

Self-organization vs Watchmaker: stochastic gene expression and cell differentiation

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Cell differentiation and organism development are traditionally described in deterministic terms of program and design, echoing a conventional clockwork perception of the cell on another scale. However, the current experimental reality of stochastic gene expression and cell plasticity is poorly consistent with the ideas of design, purpose and determinism, suggesting that the habit of classico-mechanistic interpretation of life phenomena may handicap our ability to adequately comprehend and model biological systems. An alternative conceptualization of cell differentiation and development is proposed where the developing organism is viewed as a dynamic self-organizing system of adaptive interacting agents. This alternative interpretation appears to be more consistent with the probabilistic nature of gene expression and the phenomena of cell plasticity, and is coterminous with the novel emerging image of the cell as a self-organizing molecular system. I suggest that stochasticity, as a principle of differentiation and adaptation, and self-organization, as a concept of emergence, have the potential to provide an interpretational framework that unites phenomena across different scales of biological organization, from molecules to societies.