Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Ruffling membrane senses changes in extracellular fluid viscosity and triggers adaptive behaviour in the cell

06 September 2022

Thick and Fast

Cells in the body never operate in isolation; they are influenced by everything in their local environment, from neighbouring cells to the extracellular fluid (ECF) around them. One key property of the ECF is its viscosity, thickness or stickiness – picture the difference between water and honey. Rather counterintuitively, some cells that attach to surfaces travel faster through thicker solutions, as demonstrated by this breast cancer cell. Membrane protrusions, making ruffles at the edge of the cell, probe its surroundings, and act as viscosity sensors: when thickener is added to the culture medium, the ruffles disappear, the cell spreads out, becomes flatter and moves faster (in this 3D rendering, cooler colours indicate taller sections). Higher viscosity can be associated with several medical conditions, whether in the ECF around cancer cells, or mucus in lungs affected by cystic fibrosis, so understanding how cells respond could be relevant to disease progression and treatment.

Written by Emmanuelle Briolat

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