Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


The dance of the cells: A minuet or a mosh?

The physical forces that guide how cells migrate—how they manage to get from place to place in a coordinated fashion inside the living body— are poorly understood.

Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) have, for the first time, devised a way to measure these forces during collective cellular migration. Their surprising conclusion is that the cells fight it out, each pushing and pulling on its neighbors in a chaotic dance, yet together moving cooperatively toward their intended direction.

The study appears May 22, 2011, in an advance online edition of Nature Materials.

Until now it was known that cells could follow gradients of soluble chemical cues, called morphogens, which help to direct tissue development, or they could follow physical cues, such as adhesion to their surroundings. Fundamental studies of these and other mechanisms of cellular migration have focused on dissecting cell behavior into ever smaller increments, trying to get to the molecular roots of how migration occurs. In contrast, the HSPH team worked at a higher level—the group level—and focused upon the forces that cells exert upon their immediate neighbors, to begin to resolve the riddle of collective cellular migration.

Collective cellular migrations are necessary for multicellular life; for example, in order for cells to form the embryo, cells must move collectively. Or in the healing of a wound, cells must migrate collectively to fill the wound gap. But the migration process is also dangerous in situations such as cancer, when malignant cells, or clumps of cells, can migrate to distant sites to invade other tissues or form new tumors. Understanding how and why collective cellular migration happens may lead to ways to control or interrupt diseases that involve abnormal cell migration.

The laboratories of Jeffrey Fredberg, professor of bioengineering and physiology at HSPH, and his colleague Xavier Trepat, a researcher at IBEC, are the only ones in the world that can now measure the forces within and between complex cellular groups. "We're beginning for the first time to see the forces and understand how they work when cells behave in large groups," said Trepat.

To do this, the researchers invented a measurement technology called Monolayer Stress Microscopy, which allows them to visualize the minute mechanical forces exerted at the junctions where individual cells are connected. Their studies led to discovery of a new phenomenon, which they named "plithotaxis," a term derived from Greek "plithos" suggestive of throng, swarm or crowd.

"If you studied a cell in isolation, you'd never be able to understand the behavior of a cell in a crowd," said Dhananjay Tambe, the first author and a research fellow at HSPH. Instead, the researchers studied groups of cells living in a single thin layer—a monolayer—and precisely measured the forces each cell was experiencing as it was navigating within the group. The findings surprised them.

"We thought that as cells are moving—say, to close a wound—that the underlying forces would be synchronized and smoothly changing so as to vary coherently across the crowd of cells, as in a minuet," said co-first author Corey Hardin, a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. "Instead, we found the forces to vary tremendously, occurring in huge peaks and valleys across the monolayer. So the forces are not smooth and orderly at all; they are more like those in a 'mosh pit'—organized chaos with pushing and pulling in all directions at once, but collectively giving rise to motion in a given direction," he said.

"This new finding has the potential to alter, in a fundamental way, our understanding of mechano-biology and its role in the basic processes that underlie the function of monolayers in health and disease," said Fredberg. He also predicted the new report would be interesting for both physicists and biologists, and might even spur new research collaborations between the two disciplines.

The study findings should provide a better understanding of cell migration as it occurs in embryonic development—how the human body gets put together soon after fertilization, say the researchers. The findings may also help to explain how cancer cells migrate in the deadly process called metastasis.

Support for the study was provided by the European Research Council, the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and the National Institutes of Health.

"Collective Cell Guidance by Cooperative Intercellular Forces," Dhananjay T. Tambe, C. Corey Hardin, Thomas E. Angelini, Kavitha Rajendran, Chan Young Park, Xavier Serra-Picamal, Enhua H. Zhou, Muhammad H. Zaman, James P. Butler, David A. Weitz, Jeffrey J. Fredberg, Xavier Trepat, Nature Materials, online May 22, 2011.

Visit the HSPH website for the latest news, press releases and multimedia offerings.

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public's health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children's health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights. For more information on the school visit

Todd Datz | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1
27.10.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

nachricht 'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape
27.10.2016 | International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>