Tissue mechanics essential for cell movement

February 15, 2018, University College London
Tissue mechanics essential for cell movement
Credit: University College London

Cells that form facial features need surrounding embryonic tissues to stiffen so they can move and develop, according to new UCL-led research.

The discovery has important implications for understanding the causes of which account for a third of all birth defects globally (3.2 million each year) and are the primary cause of infant mortality.

It is the first time that the mechanical properties of the environment surrounding has been shown to be crucial in cell and development, rather than genes or molecules.

The researchers say it is likely that a similar mechanism is used by other cells involved in spreading cancer and wound healing.

For the study, published today in Nature, researchers from UCL and the University of Cambridge investigated the importance of mechanical cues in the collective migration of in frog embryos.

Frogs were chosen as a model organism as their neural crest (NC) cells behave in a similar way to those of humans and their movement is often used to study the spread of cancer. In addition, the embryo development of frogs can be studied without inflicting harm which isn't true for other animal models.

"We've known that is essential for many processes in the body including the formation of embryos and cancer spread, but until now, most effort has been put into understanding the molecular cues that drive movement, rather than the role the mechanical environment plays," explained study lead author, Professor Roberto Mayor (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology).

"We were surprised to see how important hardness is for movement – it's the difference between walking on a hard pavement relative to soft sand. The cells sense the increasing hardness of their environment before moving to form the features of the face and skull. Knowing this will hopefully inform the development of preventative treatments for facial defects."

The team tested the hardness of the embryonic tissue at various stages of development using a probe that touches the surface and measures its deformation under a known pressure. They found that during development, the tissue holding the NC cells stiffens and becomes denser with cells which triggers the cells' orchestrated movement.

They modified the stiffness of the embryo tissues using actin and myosin – the same molecules used for muscle contraction – and found the hardness at which NC cells migrate. This was replicated using synthetic surfaces of the same stiffness in the laboratory.

"We've found a new link between two previously unconnected processes – the thickening and hardening of tissues and the movement of . This is a really exciting discovery as it shows the importance of tissue mechanics and molecules in coordinating . We hope it inspires others working in oncology and tissue engineering to explore the role of tissue mechanics in other important fields," concluded study first author Dr. Elias H Barriga (UCL Cell & Developmental Biology and the UCL London Centre for Nanotechnology).

Explore further: Why mutations that would seemingly affect all cells lead to face-specific birth defects

More information: Elias H. Barriga et al. Tissue stiffening coordinates morphogenesis by triggering collective cell migration in vivo, Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/nature25742

Related Stories

The eyes have it

August 29, 2017

Our bodies, with all their different features and variations, are the result of well-orchestrated processes that dictate what and how cells develop into the organs and tissues that comprise our anatomy. Much of the information ...

Cells lacking nuclei struggle to move in 3-D environments

January 20, 2018

University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers have revealed new details of how the physical properties of the nucleus influence how cells can move around different environments - such as ...

Friction shapes zebrafish embryos

March 27, 2017

A simple ball of cells is the starting point for humans—and zebrafish. At the end of embryonic development, however, a fish and a human look very different. The biochemical signals at play have been studied extensively. ...

Research study gives new insight into how cancer spreads

June 6, 2017

A research study led by University of Minnesota engineers gives new insight into how cancer cells move based on their ability to sense their environment. The discovery could have a major impact on therapies to prevent the ...

Recommended for you

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

Tiny particles can switch back and forth between phases

February 15, 2019

Three years ago, when Richard Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering, was on sabbatical at Hebrew University in Israel, he asked a graduate student to send him some nanoparticles of a specific ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.