The emergence of complex organs is driven by the coordinated proliferation, migration and differentiation of precursor cells. The fate behaviour of these cells is reflected in the time evolution of their progeny, termed clones, which serve as a key experimental observable. In adult tissues, where cell dynamics is constrained by the condition of homeostasis, clonal tracing studies based on transgenic animal models have advanced our understanding of cell fate behaviour and its dysregulation in disease1,2. But what can be learnt from clonal dynamics in development, where the spatial cohesiveness of clones is impaired by tissue deformations during tissue growth? Drawing on the results of clonal tracing studies, we show that, despite the complexity of organ development, clonal dynamics may converge to a critical state characterized by universal scaling behaviour of clone sizes. By mapping clonal dynamics onto a generalization of the classical theory of aerosols, we elucidate the origin and range of scaling behaviours and show how the identification of universal scaling dependences may allow lineage-specific information to be distilled from experiments. Our study shows the emergence of core concepts of statistical physics in an unexpected context, identifying cellular systems as a laboratory to study non-equilibrium statistical physics.
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B.D.S. acknowledges the support of the Wellcome Trust (grant number 098357/Z/12/Z). F.L. is supported by a long-term EMBO fellowship and the postdoctoral fellowship of the FNRS. S.C. is supported by a FRIA/FNRS fellowship. C.B. is supported by the ULB, a research grant of the FNRS, the Foundation Bettencourt Schueller, the Foundation ULB and the Foundation Baillet Latour. M.S. is supported by an MRC doctoral training award and A.P. is supported by MRC research grant MR/K018329/1. M.H. is a Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellow and is jointly funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society (104151/Z/14/Z); M.H. and N.P. are funded by a Horizon 2020 grant (LSFM4LIFE). C.H. was funded by a Cambridge Stem Cell Institute Seed funding award for interdisciplinary research awarded to M.H. and B.D.S. We are grateful to K. D. Poss and V. Gupta for making a digital version of their data available to us.