Emergence of large-scale cell morphology and movement from local actin filament growth dynamics

Catherine I. Lacayo, Zachary Pincus, Martijn M. VanDuijn, Cyrus A. Wilson, Daniel A. Fletcher, Frank B. Gertler, Alex Mogilner, Julie A. Theriot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Variations in cell migration and morphology are consequences of changes in underlying cytoskeletal organization and dynamics. We investigated how these large-scale cellular events emerge as direct consequences of small-scale cytoskeletal molecular activities. Because the properties of the actin cytoskeleton can be modulated by actin-remodeling proteins, we quantitatively examined how one such family of proteins, enabled/vasodilator-stimulated phosphoprotein (Ena/VASP), affects the migration and morphology of epithelial fish keratocytes. Keratocytes generally migrate persistently while exhibiting a characteristic smooth-edged "canoe" shape, but may also exhibit less regular morphologies and less persistent movement. When we observed that the smooth-edged canoe keratocyte morphology correlated with enrichment of Ena/VASP at the leading edge, we mislocalized and overexpressed Ena/VASP proteins and found that this led to changes in the morphology and movement persistence of cells within a population. Thus, local changes in actin filament dynamics due to Ena/VASP activity directly caused changes in cell morphology, which is coupled to the motile behavior of keratocytes. We also characterized the range of natural cell-to-cell variation within a population by using measurable morphological and behavioral features - cell shape, leading-edge shape, filamentous actin (F-actin) distribution, cell speed, and directional persistence - that we have found to correlate with each other to describe a spectrum of coordinated phenotypes based on Ena/VASP enrichment at the leading edge. This spectrum stretched from smooth-edged, canoe-shaped keratocytes - which had VASP highly enriched at their leading edges and migrated fast with straight trajectories - to more irregular, rounder cells migrating slower with less directional persistence and low levels of VASP at their leading edges. We developed a mathematical model that accounts for these coordinated cell-shape and behavior phenotypes as large-scale consequences of kinetic contributions of VASP to actin filament growth and protection from capping at the leading edge. This work shows that the local effects of actin-remodeling proteins on cytoskeletal dynamics and organization can manifest as global modifications of the shape and behavior of migrating cells and that mathematical modeling can elucidate these large-scale cell behaviors from knowledge of detailed multiscale protein interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2035-2052
Number of pages18
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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