Protrusion, the first step of cell migration, is driven by actin polymerization coupled to adhesion at the cell's leading edge. Polymerization and adhesive forces have been estimated, but the net protrusion force has not been measured accurately. We arrest the leading edge of a moving fish keratocyte with a hydrodynamic load generated by a fluid flow from a micropipette. The flow arrests protrusion locally as the cell approaches the pipette, causing an arc-shaped indentation and upward folding of the leading edge. The effect of the flow is reversible upon pipette removal and dependent on the flow direction, suggesting that it is a direct effect of the external force rather than a regulated cellular response. Modeling of the fluid flow gives a surprisingly low value for the arresting force of just a few piconewtons per micrometer. Enhanced phase contrast, fluorescence, and interference reflection microscopy suggest that the flow does not abolish actin polymerization and does not disrupt the adhesions formed before the arrest but rather interferes with weak nascent adhesions at the very front of the cell. We conclude that a weak external force is sufficient to reorient the growing actin network at the leading edge and to stall the protrusion.
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