During mammalian development and homeostasis, cells often transition from a multilineage primed state to one of several differentiated cell types that are marked by the expression of mutually exclusive genetic markers. These observations have been classically explained by single-cell multistability as the dynamical basis of differentiation, where robust cell-type proportioning relies on pre-existing cell-to-cell differences. We propose a conceptually different dynamical mechanism in which cell types emerge and are maintained collectively by cell-cell communication as a novel inhomogeneous state of the coupled system. Differentiation can be triggered by cell number increase as the population grows in size, through organisation of the initial homogeneous population before the symmetry-breaking bifurcation point. Robust proportioning and reliable recovery of the differentiated cell types following a perturbation is an inherent feature of the inhomogeneous state that is collectively maintained. This dynamical mechanism is valid for systems with steady-state or oscillatory single-cell dynamics. Therefore, our results suggest that timing and subsequent differentiation in robust cell-type proportions can emerge from the cooperative behaviour of growing cell populations during development.

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