If you just landed on Softbites for the first time, you probably have not had the chance to read our previous posts about microfluidics (like this one, or that one, and more). If this field of science is foreign to you, all you need to know is that it studies how fluids flow at really small scales (typically tens to hundreds of micrometers). For instance, you can quickly generate tiny droplets of a solution, turning each droplet into an individual “reactor”. Or you can create microenvironments with precisely controlled chemical concentrations to grow cells in different conditions.
“USE YOUR LEGS!” That’s what might have been yelled at you the first time you went climbing. We are so used to walking or running that we don’t even think about how we do it. But when we face a new environment, such as a steep slope, we realize that finding the best strategy to move through space is not so easy. Now, imagine you are as small as few dozens of microns, without legs or arms, and you live in a viscous fluid. How would you move? This is the question biologists who are interested in cell movements have been trying to solve. By observing cells under a microscope, they saw that depending on their type or their environment, cells exhibit a wide variety of motion strategies. However, one thing never changes: cells need to exert forces on their environment to move. To do so, some kinds of cells create structures called focal adhesions. These structures are made up of several proteins, assembled on the outside of the cell. Like tiny bits of double-sided tape, their purpose is to stick the cell to whatever is nearby (see Figure 1). In slightly more technical language, focal adhesions connect the molecular skeleton of the cell to a substrate.
In episode one of this series, I presented a research paper by Stéphane Douezan and his colleagues in which they studied a ball of cells (called a cellular aggregate) sitting on a flat surface. After introducing the concept of cellular aggregate wetting by comparing it to the classical system of a drop of water, today I present the main part of the paper which looks at the dynamics of spreading of the cellular aggregate. I strongly suggest that the reader reads the first post before reading this one.
Have you ever noticed how drops of water have different shapes on a clean piece of glass and in a frying pan? The frying pan surface is coated with a hydrophobic ("water-repellant") molecule so it does not stick to food, which typically contains a lot of water. As a result, a drop of water will take on a roughly spherical shape to reduce as much as possible its area of contact with the frying pan. If a surface has an even more hydrophobic coating than a frying pan, the drop can even reach a perfectly spherical shape (this is called ultrahydrophobicity).
We all started as one single cell. This cell contains all the information to make a complex adult body. Developmental biologists are trying to understand how this cell will first divide to make a dull ball of cells which will then start making dramatic changes in shape to pattern the future organs of the body. One of the difficult questions is how cells that will form the same structure are able to find one another and sort from the mix of other cell types.