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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 16;109(42):16945-50. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205870109. Epub 2012 Oct 1.

Collective mesendoderm migration relies on an intrinsic directionality signal transmitted through cell contacts.

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  • 1Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale U1024, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Unité Mixte de Recherche 8197, F-75005 Paris, France.


Collective cell migration is key to morphogenesis, wound healing, or cancer cell migration. However, its cellular bases are just starting to be unraveled. During vertebrate gastrulation, axial mesendoderm migrates in a group, the prechordal plate, from the embryonic organizer to the animal pole. How this collective migration is achieved remains unclear. Previous work has suggested that cells migrate as individuals, with collective movement resulting from the addition of similar individual cell behavior. Through extensive analyses of cell trajectories, morphologies, and polarization in zebrafish embryos, we reveal that all prechordal plate cells show the same behavior and rely on the same signaling pathway to migrate, as expected if they do so individually. However, by using cell transplants, we demonstrate that prechordal plate migration is a true collective process, as isolated cells do not migrate toward the animal pole. They are still polarized and motile but lose directionality. Directionality is restored upon contact with the endogenous prechordal plate. This contact dependent orientation relies on E-cadherin, Wnt-PCP signaling, and Rac1. Importantly, groups of cells also need contact with the endogenous plate to orient correctly, showing an instructive role of the plate in establishing directionality. Overall, our results lead to an original model of collective migration in which directional information is contained within the moving group rather than provided by extrinsic cues, and constantly maintained in cells by contacts with their neighbors. This self-organizing model could account for collective invasion of new territories, as observed in cancer strands, without requirement for any attractant in the colonized tissue.

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