Certain kinds of cellular movements are apparently driven by actin polymerization. Examples include the lamellipodia of spreading and migrating embryonic cells, and the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, that propels itself through its host's cytoplasm by constructing behind it a polymerized tail of cross-linked actin filaments. Peskin et al. (1993) formulated a model to explain how a polymerizing filament could rectify the Brownian motion of an object so as to produce unidirectional force (Peskin, C., G. Odell, and G. Oster. 1993. Cellular motions and thermal fluctuations: the Brownian ratchet Biophys. J. 65:316-324). Their 'Brownian ratchet' model assumed that the filament was stiff and that thermal fluctuations affected only the 'load,' i.e., the object being pushed. However, under many conditions of biological interest, the thermal fluctuations of the load are insufficient to produce the observed motions. Here we shall show that the thermal motions of the polymerizing filaments can produce a directed force. This 'elastic Brownian ratchet' can explain quantitatively the propulsion of Listeria and the protrusive mechanics of lamellipodia. The model also explains how the polymerization process nucleates the orthogonal structure of the actin network in lamellipodia.
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