Small-world connectivity dictates collective endothelial cell signaling: scale-free signaling in the endothelial network

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Every blood vessel is lined by a single layer of highly specialized, yet adaptable and multifunctional endothelial cells. These cells, the endothelium, control vascular contractility, hemostasis, and inflammation and regulate the exchange of oxygen, nutrients, and waste products between circulating blood and tissue. To control each function, the endothelium processes endlessly arriving requests from multiple sources using separate clusters of cells specialized to detect specific stimuli. A well-developed but poorly understood communication system operates between cells to integrate multiple lines of information and coordinate endothelial responses. Here, the nature of the communication network has been addressed using single-cell Ca2+ imaging across thousands of endothelial cells in intact blood vessels. Cell activities were cross-correlated and compared to a stochastic model to determine network connections. Highly correlated Ca2+ activities occurred in scattered cell clusters, and network communication links between them exhibited unexpectedly short path lengths. The number of connections between cells (degree distribution) followed a power-law relationship revealing a scale-free network topology. The path length and degree distribution revealed an endothelial network with a "small-world" configuration. The small-world configuration confers particularly dynamic endothelial properties including high signal-propagation speed, stability, and a high degree of synchronizability. Local activation of small clusters of cells revealed that the short path lengths and rapid signal transmission were achieved by shortcuts via connecting extensions to nonlocal cells. These findings reveal that the endothelial network design is effective for local and global efficiency in the interaction of the cells and rapid and robust communication between endothelial cells in order to efficiently control cardiovascular activity.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2118927119
Number of pages12
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number18
Early online date28 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2022


  • endothelial cell signalling
  • endothelial cell function
  • endothelial communication


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