Stepping our understanding of cellular function up a gear

An IBEC researcher and his collaborators uncover the crucial role of two molecules in enabling cells to communicate with their environment

Imagine you’re driving a car on a mountain road, and a steep slope appears. To make sure that you can make it up the slope, you reduce gears, which improves force transmission from the motor to the wheels.

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You might not think that the cells in our bodies have much in common with cars, but it turns out that cells use a similar mechanism to transmit the forces that allow them to accomplish important functions such as cell migration, moving muscles or simply maintaining tissue integrity. Instead of using gears, however, cells employ molecules.

A cell marked with the two types of molecules, alpha-actinin (green) and talin (red). Another molecule, an integrin, appears in blue.

Now, a team led by Pere Roca-Cusachs from the IBEC has discovered how cells use two of these molecules, talin and alpha-actinin, to connect with and transmit forces to their surroundings. By using nanotechnologies able to both detect and apply forces to cells, the researchers have unveiled a crucial mechanism by which cells ‘switch gears’ by using one molecule or the other, regulating force transmission and their connection with their environment.

“As cellular forces are essential for crucial processes such as the development of embryos or wound healing, as well as in undesirable ones such as cancer progression, this discovery represents an important step in our understanding of cell function, with implications in both health and disease,” explains Pere.

Roca-Cusachs, P., del Rio, A., Faucher, E., Gauthier, N.C., Biais, N. & Sheetz, M.P. (2013). Integrin-dependent force transmission to the extracellular matrix by α-actinin triggers adhesion maturation. PNAS, 110(15): E1361-70