In the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum, periodic synthesis and release of extracellular cyclic adenosine 3',5'-monophosphate (cAMP) guide cell aggregation and commitment to form fruiting bodies. It is unclear whether these oscillations are an intrinsic property of individual cells or if they exist only as a population-level phenomenon. Here, we showed by live-cell imaging of intact cell populations that pulses originate from a discrete location despite constant exchange of cells to and from the region. In a perfusion chamber, both isolated single cells and cell populations switched from quiescence to rhythmic activity depending on the concentration of extracellular cAMP. A quantitative analysis showed that stochastic pulsing of individual cells below the threshold concentration of extracellular cAMP plays a critical role in the onset of collective behavior.
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