News Release

Different responses in individual cells give muscles more control

Variations dismissed as "noise" actually information

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Tokyo

Minute differences in individual muscle cell contractions allow the entire muscle to flex with greater control and accuracy. Long dismissed as "noise" or error, experts now suspect that biological systems may have evolved to include unavoidable variation as a form of information in their communication channels. A team of experts from the University of Tokyo published these findings in the scientific journal Cell Reports.

"The differences between cells' responses to stimulation is actually another form of information," said Professor Shinya Kuroda, leader of the research lab that performed the experiments at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Science and a co-author of the recent research publication.

Although robots might be designed to respond identically in unison, each cell in a natural system contains all manner of idiosyncrasies, such as unique patterns of gene expression. Each cell in a muscle receives the same nerve signal to contract or relax, but one cell might respond with a strong contraction while its neighbor responds with a weak contraction. The scientific community previously suspected that these variations were caused by information being lost along the communication channel.

In their new experiments, UTokyo researchers monitored the contractions of 551 individual mouse muscle cells grown in lab dishes, giving each cell 200 tiny electrical shocks to observe how different cells reacted to the same stimulation.

"Previously, no one had the technical ability to do these repeated measurements of single cells," said Project Research Associate Takumi Wada, first author of the recent research publication.

Regardless of whether a cell responded strongly or weakly to a particular stimulation, when any cell received a greater electrical shock, it reacted with a greater response. Moreover, individual cells were consistent; every time a cell received the same shock stimulation, it responded in the same way.

"We observed that each cell is quite good at responding to the stimulation accurately. They are simply different," said Kuroda.

Reliable and accurate responses to all levels of stimulation ensure that cells' differences remain consistent and therefore meaningful, rather than unpredictable and chaotic. The variation between cells means that, as a whole, the muscle tissue can detect a wider range of stimulation intensities and can respond with a corresponding wider range of control. If all cells responded identically, the whole muscle tissue could only perform on/off binary responses.

Researchers performed additional experiments using single fibers of mouse skeletal muscle and also analyzed recordings of facial muscle activity routinely collected during surgeries on human patients.

This concept of individual cell variability communicating essential information through biological systems may also be relevant to other processes where life requires a wide spectrum of responses, like hormone secretion. For example, the pancreas may be able to release different amounts of insulin hormone due to individual beta cells of the pancreas responding differently to blood sugar levels.


Collaborators at the University of Tokyo Hospital Department of Neurosurgery and Tokyo Metropolitan University Department of Health Promotion Sciences also contributed to this research.

Research Article

Takumi Wada, Ken-ichi Hironaka, Mitsutaka Wataya, Masashi Fujii, Miki Eto, Shinsuke Uda, Daisuke Hoshino, Katsuyuki Kunida, Haruki Inoue, Hiroyuki Kubota, Tsuguto Takizawa, Yasuaki Karasawa, Hirofumi Nakatomi, Nobuhito Saito, Hiroki Hamaguchi, Yasuro Furuichi, Yasuko Manabe, Shinya Kuroda, Nobuharu L. Fujii. 1 September 2020. Single-cell information analysis reveals that skeletal muscles incorporate cell-to-cell variability as information not noise. Cell Reports. DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2020.108051

Related Links

Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Science:

Graduate School of Science:

University of Tokyo Hospital:

Research contact

Professor Shinya Kuroda, Ph.D., M.D.
Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo, 7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-0033, Japan.
Tel: 03-5841-4697

Press officer contact

Ms. Caitlin Devor
Division for Strategic Public Relations, The University of Tokyo, 7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 133-8654, JAPAN
Tel: +81-080-9707-8178

About the University of Tokyo

The University of Tokyo is Japan's leading university and one of the world's top research universities. The vast research output of some 6,000 researchers is published in the world's top journals across the arts and sciences. Our vibrant student body of around 15,000 undergraduate and 15,000 graduate students includes over 4,000 international students. Find out more at or follow us on Twitter at @UTokyo_News_en.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.