Enlarge (credit: Martin Barraud)

When we talk about memories in biology, we tend to focus on the brain and the storage of information in neurons. But there are lots of other memories that persist within our cells. Cells remember their developmental history, whether they’ve been exposed to pathogens, and so on. And that raises a question that has been challenging to answer: How does something as fundamental as a cell hold on to information across multiple divisions?

There’s no one answer, and the details are really difficult to work out in many cases. But scientists have now worked out one memory system in detail. Cells are able to remember when their parent had a difficult time dividing—a problem that’s often associated with DNA damage and cancer. And, if the problems are substantial enough, the two cells that result from a division will stop dividing themselves.

Setting a timer

In multicellular organisms, cell division is very carefully regulated. Uncontrolled division is the hallmark of cancers. But problems with the individual segments of division—things like copying DNA, repairing any damage, making sure each daughter cell gets the right number of chromosomes—can lead to mutations. So, the cell division process includes lots of checkpoints where the cell makes sure everything has worked properly.

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