Choosing units of size for populations of cells

Recently, I have been interacting more and more closely with experiment. This has put me in the fortunate position of balancing the design and analysis of both theoretical and experimental models. It is tempting to think of theorists as people that come up with ideas to explain an existing body of facts, and of mathematical modelers as people that try to explain (or represent) an existing experiment. But in healthy collaboration, theory and experiment should walk hand it hand. If experiments pose our problems and our mathematical models are our tools then my insistence on pairing tools and problems (instead of ‘picking the best tool for the problem’) means that we should be willing to deform both for better communication in the pair.

Evolutionary game theory — and many other mechanistic models in mathematical oncology and elsewhere — typically tracks population dynamics, and thus sets population size (or proportions within a population) as central variables. Most models think of the units of population as individual organisms; in this post, I’ll stick to the petri dish and focus on cells as the individual organisms. We then try to figure out properties of these individual cells and their interactions based on prior experiments or our biological intuitions. Experimentalists also often reason in terms of individual cells, making them seem like a natural communication tool. Unfortunately, experiments and measurements themselves are usually not about cells. They are either of properties that are only meaningful at the population level — like fitness — or indirect proxies for counts of individual cells — like PSA or intensity of fluorescence. This often makes counts of individual cells into an inferred theoretical quantity and not a direct observable. And if we are going to introduce an extra theoretical term then parsimony begs for a justification.

But what is so special about the number of cells? In this post, I want to question the reasons to focus on individual cells (at the expense of other choices) as the basic atoms of our ontology.

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