Cell Mechanics at the Rear Act to Steer the Direction of Cell Migration

Greg M. Allen, Kun Chun Lee, Erin L. Barnhart, Mark A. Tsuchida, Cyrus A. Wilson, Edgar Gutierrez, Alexander Groisman, Julie A. Theriot, Alex Mogilner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Motile cells navigate complex environments by changing their direction of travel, generating left-right asymmetries in their mechanical subsystems to physically turn. Currently, little is known about how external directional cues are propagated along the length scale of the whole cell and integrated with its force-generating apparatus to steer migration mechanically. We examine the mechanics of spontaneous cell turning in fish epidermal keratocytes and find that the mechanical asymmetries responsible for turning behavior predominate at the rear of the cell, where there is asymmetric centripetal actin flow. Using experimental perturbations, we identify two linked feedback loops connecting myosin II contractility, adhesion strength and actin network flow in turning cells that are sufficient to explain the observed cell shapes and trajectories. Notably, asymmetries in actin polymerization at the cell leading edge play only a minor role in the mechanics of cell turning—that is, cells steer from the rear.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)286-299.e4
JournalCell Systems
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 23 2020


  • actin
  • adhesion
  • asymmetry
  • cell migration
  • cell motility
  • cell turning
  • keratocyte
  • myosin
  • self-organization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology
  • Cell Biology


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