Myxamoebae of the morphogenetic cellular slime mold Dictyostelium discoideum are thought to be able to accurately read and respond to directional information in spatial gradients of cyclic AMP. We examined the spatial and temporal mechanisms proposed for chemotaxis by comparing the behavior of spreading or evenly distributed cell populations after exposure to well-defined spatial gradients. The effects of gradient generation on cells were avoided by using predeveloped gradients. Qualitatively different responses were obtained using (a) isotropic, (b) static spatial, or (c) temporal (impulse) gradients in a simple chamber of penetrable micropore filters. We simulated models of chemotaxis and chemokinesis to aid our interpretations. The attractive and locomotory responses of populations were maximally stimulated by 0.05 microM cyclic AMP, provided that cellular phosphodiesterase was inhibited. But a single impulse of cyclic AMP during gradient development caused a greater and qualitatively different attraction. Attraction in spatial gradients was only transient, in that populations eventually developed a random distribution when confined to a narrow territory. Populations never accumulated nor lost their random distribution even in extremely steep spatial gradients. Attraction in spatial gradients was inducible only in spreading populations, not randomly distributed ones. Thus, spatial gradients effect biased-random locomotion: i.e., chemokinesis without adaptation. Cells cannot read gradients; the reaction of the cells is stochastic. Spatial gradients do not cause chemotaxis, which probably requires a sharp stimulant concentration increase (a temporal gradient) as a pulse or impulse. The results also bear on concepts of how embryonic cells might be able to decipher the positional information in a morphogen spatial gradient during development.

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