Friday, 16 May 2014 08:10

Slime Molds Go Wheel to Wheel with Chemotaxing Neutrophils in World Race Today

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dictyIt's winner-takes-all at the long-awaited World Dicty
Race in Boston. ASCB illustration by Johnny Chang
The Big Day dawns at last. As the sun heaves itself out of the Atlantic Ocean this morning and Boston stirs to life, the Dicty World Race will roar into action in the Massachusetts General Hospital lab of Dan Irimia. Twenty teams have sent in their finely tuned racing organisms to settle the question of which will be faster in a race against the clock through a microfluidic maze, the Dictyostelium discoideum a.k.a. Dicty, the slime mold with a vast reputation (and literature), or a human neutrophil-like cell line called HL-60. You can follow the action live here.

As has been pointed out in this space before, speeds could be scorching. Race organizers say that the average single cell Dicty can cover 10-20 microns a minute. Scientific staff at the ASCB National Office calculated that a multi-generational relay team of speeding Dicty would cover a mile in 153 years (or 95 years for a kilometer). Needless to say, the Irimia lab is taking all prudent safety measures to protect bystanders should a slime mold ricochet off the track into the stands.

Those who think a slime mold race would be purely for love of science are wrong. Irimia has raised a $5,000 purse for the winner. To make things even more interesting, Irimia issued a call for unofficial (and totally nonmonetary) betting on the outcome. To help the punters with their handicapping, entering teams were asked to outline their strategy in a race where doping was strongly recommended, that is, doping of the Dicty and HL-60.

The Strassman and Queller lab from Washington University, St. Louis, said they were putting their faith in wild type, predicting that, "Wild Dicty cells will crush the competition and prove that nature knows best.' From the University College London lab of Guillaume Charras comes word that the team is counting on contractility for efficient migration in confined environments. "So we doped up our cells to make them fast and furious. Let's just hope they can still steer like Vin Diesel..."

Behind their powerful HL-60 entry, says Natacha Steinckwich-Besancon of the Calcium Regulation Group at the NIH National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), was the design decision that a high-speed chemotaxing HL-60 did not need nitrous oxide. "Instead, we have souped-up and enhanced the cells calcium-signaling pathways to 'GO NEUTRO'!!"

The betting (if anyone actually placed a bet, which is unclear) is now closed. A world turns its eyes to a small (very) microfluidic racetrack in Boston.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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