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Keywords:

  • cell fate;
  • Dictyostelium discoideum;
  • differentiation;
  • heterogeneity

From microbes to metazoans, it is now clear that fluctuations in the abundance of mRNA transcripts and protein molecules enable genetically identical cells to oscillate between several distinct states (Kaern et al. 2005). Since this cell–cell variability does not derive from physical differences in the genetic code it is termed non-genetic heterogeneity. Non-genetic heterogeneity endows cell populations with useful capabilities they could never achieve if each cell were the same as its neighbors (Raj & van Oudenaarden 2008; Eldar & Elowitz 2010). One such example is seen during multicellular development and “salt and pepper” cell type differentiation. In this review, we will first examine the importance of non-genetic heterogeneity in initiating “salt and pepper” pattern formation during Dictyostelium discoideum development. Second, we will discuss the various ways in which non-genetic heterogeneity might be generated, as well as recent advances in understanding the molecular basis of heterogeneity in this system.