Accomplishing perhaps a world first, researchers at Columbia University and the UChicago-affiliated Marine Biological Laboratory have mapped the full-body muscular activity of an animal while it was moving and behaving.

Their study adds to mounting evidence that the coordinated activity of many cells working together—in this case, across an entire organism—generates new functional and behavioral properties that are not present in single cells.

In the study, published in Current Biologythe researchers watched the patterns of muscle activity in a small aquatic animal called a hydra as it bent, contracted, and elongated its tubular body and tentacles.

Building on their prior success in mapping full-body neural activity in hydra, they pinpointed seven distinct patterns of muscle activity and discovered that individual muscle cells can participate in multiple patterns with different kinetics. In hydras muscular and nervous systems alike, these patterns appear to emerge from the coordination of many cells working in unison.

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Image credit: John Szymanski