Phase transition in the economically modeled growth of a cellular nervous system.


Spatially embedded complex networks, such as nervous systems, the Internet, and transportation networks, generally have nontrivial topological patterns of connections combined with nearly minimal wiring costs. However, the growth rules shaping these economical tradeoffs between cost and topology are not well understood. Here, we study the cellular nervous system of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, together with information on the birth times of neurons and on their spatial locations. We find that the growth of this network undergoes a transition from an accelerated to a constant increase in the number of links (synaptic connections) as a function of the number of nodes (neurons). The time of this phase transition coincides closely with the observed moment of hatching, when development switches metamorphically from oval to larval stages. We use graph analysis and generative modeling to show that the transition between different growth regimes, as well as its coincidence with the moment of hatching, may be explained by a dynamic economical model that incorporates a tradeoff between topology and cost that is continuously negotiated and renegotiated over developmental time. As the body of the animal progressively elongates, the cost of longer-distance connections is increasingly penalized. This growth process regenerates many aspects of the adult nervous system's organization, including the neuronal membership of anatomically predefined ganglia. We expect that similar economical principles may be found in the development of other biological or manmade spatially embedded complex systems.