The Peter Parker cell

Berginski M, Vitriol E, Hahn K, Gomez S [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

“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.

Embryonic cell sorting: the living Rubik’s cube

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.