Cells play ‘tag’ to determine direction of movement

Researchers at IBEC, the University of Barcelona and their collaborators have found that cells in our bodies, when moving collectively, carry out something similar to a game of ‘tag’ to coordinate their movement in a particular direction.

The scientists in Barcelona and London looked at cells in the neural crest, a very mobile embryonic structure in vertebrates that gives rise to most of the peripheral nervous system and to other cell types in the cardiovascular system, pigment cells in the skin, and some bones, cartilage, and connective tissue in the head.

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Image: Trajectories of neural crest cells (blue) chasing placode tissue (purple). (© UCL)

They saw that, during development, these neural crest cells ‘chase’ other types of cells – so-called placodal cells, which give rise to the sensory organs – which dash away when approached, thus propelling the cell sheet in a certain direction.

“The effect can also be likened to a donkey and carrot effect, with the neural crest cells – the donkey – chasing but never quite reaching the carrot, the placodal cells,” explains Xavier Trepat, a group leader at IBEC and the UB. “The chasing occurs when a signaling protein, Sdf1, is present, while the ‘run’ effect is triggered by a different protein, N-Cadherin.”

The researchers’ findings shed new light on collective cell migration, a critical process in development and wound healing, but which is also inherent to the development of diseases such as cancer. Understanding more about how and why cells move the way they do can lead to valuable insights into how and why cancers occur and spread.

Source: E Theveneau, B Steventon, E Scarpa, S Garcia, X Trepat, A Streit & R Mayor  (2013). ‘Chase-and-run between adjacent cell populations promotes directional collective migration‘. Nature Cell Biology, doi:10.1038/ncb2772

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