Cutting through the complexity of cell collectives.
Via strength in numbers, groups of cells can influence their environments in ways that individual cells cannot. Large-scale structural patterns and collective functions underpinning virulence, tumour growth and bacterial biofilm formation are emergent properties of coupled physical and biological processes within cell groups. Owing to the abundance of factors influencing cell group behaviour, deriving general principles about them is a daunting challenge. We argue that combining mechanistic theory with theoretical ecology and evolution provides a key strategy for clarifying how cell groups form, how they change in composition over time, and how they interact with their environments. Here, we review concepts that are critical for dissecting the complexity of cell collectives, including dimensionless parameter groups, individual-based modelling and evolutionary theory. We then use this hybrid modelling approach to provide an example analysis of the evolution of cooperative enzyme secretion in bacterial biofilms.