An interdisciplinary analysis of inflammatory signalling dynamics in single cells

  • Christopher Boddington

    Student thesis: Unknown


    Immune cells must accurately interpret environmental signals to make robust cell fate decisions and control inflammatory signalling. Many signals (e.g. Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha (TNFa) or interferon gamma (IFNg)) converge on just a few key signalling systems such as Nuclear Factor kappa B (NF-kB) or Signal Transducers and Activators of Transcription (STAT), which exhibit complex activation dynamics that control patterns of downstream gene expression. Often, seemingly identical cells show heterogeneous or random behaviour to a common stimulus. Therefore, a key question is how can immune cells coordinate inflammatory signalling in the presence of this noise.The NF-kB system dynamics were studied in response to rapidly changing inflammatory signals. It was shown that pulsed TNFa cytokine stimulations induced digital single-cell NF-kB responses, with only a fraction of cells able to respond to repeated pulses. These responses appeared to be reproducible in individual cells, but heterogeneous in the population. Mathematical models of the NF-kB signalling network suggested that single-cell responses were governed through a refractory state potentially encoded via 'extrinsic' noise in the levels of signalling molecules related to the TNFa signal transduction pathway. Such signal processing enabled robust and reproducible single cell responses and maintained acute tissue-level signalling, with fewer cells responding to shorter pulsing intervals.The NF-kB system is involved in effector cytokine propagation in response to pathogen infection. It was shown that in macrophages, the dose of TLR4 stimulation (mimicking the pathogen infection) was encoded in graded (yet heterogeneous) NF-kB dynamics in single cells. This resulted in analogue inflammatory gene expression patterns in the population. However, individual cells substantially differed in their ability to encode TLR4 signal and to regulate TNFa expression, which was explained by extrinsic noise in the NF-kB system. Quantitative mathematical modelling showed that tissue-level environment modulates heterogeneous single-cell TNFa outputs; by effectively removing it from circulation. This may determine the interaction distance between tissue-resident immune cells to enable propagation of cellular inflammation.Heterogeneity of single cell macrophage signalling was also observed in NF-kB and STAT1 system responses to a range of IFN stimulation doses. Although each system showed substantial variability between cells, their responses were surprisingly well correlated in individual cells. It was however apparent (based on gene expression studies) that individual cells may not be able to precisely discriminate different IFNg doses.Overall, this work suggests that heterogeneity in the NF-kB (and other) regulatory networks might be a part of an inherent design motif in the inflammatory response, which enables robust control of the tissue-level inflammatory response by preventing homogeneous and thus potentially harmful activation.
    Date of Award31 Dec 2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorDean Jackson (Supervisor), Pedro Pedrosa Mendes (Supervisor) & Pawel Paszek (Supervisor)


    • stochastic
    • cytokine
    • signalling
    • STAT
    • NF-kB
    • cellular heterogeneity

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