Adhesion-Dependent Wave Generation in Crawling Cells

Erin L. Barnhart, Jun Allard, Sunny S. Lou, Julie A. Theriot, Alex Mogilner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Dynamic actin networks are excitable. In migrating cells, feedback loops can amplify stochastic fluctuations in actin dynamics, often resulting in traveling waves of protrusion. The precise contributions of various molecular and mechanical interactions to wave generation have been difficult to disentangle, in part due to complex cellular morphodynamics. Here we used a relatively simple cell type—the fish epithelial keratocyte—to define a set of mechanochemical feedback loops underlying actin network excitability and wave generation. Although keratocytes are normally characterized by the persistent protrusion of a broad leading edge, increasing cell-substrate adhesion strength results in waving protrusion of a short leading edge. We show that protrusion waves are due to fluctuations in actin polymerization rates and that overexpression of VASP, an actin anti-capping protein that promotes actin polymerization, switches highly adherent keratocytes from waving to persistent protrusion. Moreover, VASP localizes both to adhesion complexes and to the leading edge. Based on these results, we developed a mathematical model for protrusion waves in which local depletion of VASP from the leading edge by adhesions—along with lateral propagation of protrusion due to the branched architecture of the actin network and negative mechanical feedback from the cell membrane—results in regular protrusion waves. Consistent with our model simulations, we show that VASP localization at the leading edge oscillates, with VASP leading-edge enrichment greatest just prior to protrusion initiation. We propose that the mechanochemical feedbacks underlying wave generation in keratocytes may constitute a general module for establishing excitable actin dynamics in other cellular contexts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-38
Number of pages12
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 9 2017


  • VASP
  • actin dynamics
  • actin waves
  • adhesion dynamics
  • cell motility
  • excitable system
  • keratocyte
  • leading edge

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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