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  1. Abstract

    Cell shape is linked to cell function. The significance of cell morphodynamics, namely the temporal fluctuation of cell shape, is much less understood. Here we study the morphodynamics of MDA-MB-231 cells in type I collagen extracellular matrix (ECM). We systematically vary ECM physical properties by tuning collagen concentrations, alignment, and gelation temperatures. We find that morphodynamics of 3D migrating cells are externally controlled by ECM mechanics and internally modulated by Rho/ROCK-signaling. We employ machine learning to classify cell shape into four different morphological phenotypes, each corresponding to a distinct migration mode. As a result, we map cell morphodynamics at mesoscale into the temporal evolution of morphological phenotypes. We characterize the mesoscale dynamics including occurrence probability, dwell time and transition matrix at varying ECM conditions, which demonstrate the complex phenotype landscape and optimal pathways for phenotype transitions. In light of the mesoscale dynamics, we show that 3D cancer cell motility is a hidden Markov process whereby the step size distributions of cell migration are coupled with simultaneous cell morphodynamics. Morphological phenotype transitions also facilitate cancer cells to navigate non-uniform ECM such as traversing the interface between matrices of two distinct microstructures. In conclusion, we demonstrate that 3D migrating cancer cells exhibit rich morphodynamics that is controlled by ECM mechanics, Rho/ROCK-signaling, and regulate cell motility. Our results pave the way to the functional understanding and mechanical programming of cell morphodynamics as a route to predict and control 3D cell motility.

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  2. Altered tissue mechanics is an important signature of invasive solid tumors. While the phenomena have been extensively studied by measuring the bulk rheology of the extracellular matrix (ECM) surrounding tumors, micromechanical remodeling at the cellular scale remains poorly understood. By combining holographic optical tweezers and confocal microscopy on in vitro tumor models, we show that the micromechanics of collagen ECM surrounding an invading tumor demonstrate directional anisotropy, spatial heterogeneity and significant variations in time as tumors invade. To test the cellular mechanisms of ECM micromechanical remodeling, we construct a simple computational model and verify its predictions with experiments. We find that collective force generation of a tumor stiffens the ECM and leads to anisotropic local mechanics such that the extension direction is more rigid than the compression direction. ECM degradation by cell-secreted matrix metalloproteinase softens the ECM, and active traction forces from individual disseminated cells re-stiffen the matrix. Together, these results identify plausible biophysical mechanisms responsible for the remodeled ECM micromechanics surrounding an invading tumor. 
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  3. Coordinated responses to environmental stimuli are critical for multicellular organisms. To overcome the obstacles of cell-to-cell heterogeneity and noisy signaling dynamics within individual cells, cells must effectively exchange information with peers. However, the dynamics and mechanisms of collective information transfer driven by external signals are poorly understood. Here we investigate the calcium dynamics of neuronal cells that form confluent monolayers and respond to cyclic ATP stimuli in microfluidic devices. Using Granger inference to reconstruct the underlying causal relations between the cells, we find that the cells self-organize into spatially decentralized and temporally stationary networks to support information transfer via gap junction channels. The connectivity of the causal networks depends on the temporal profile of the external stimuli, where short periods, or long periods with small duty fractions, lead to reduced connectivity and fractured network topology. We build a theoretical model based on communicating excitable units that reproduces our observations. The model further predicts that connectivity of the causal network is maximal at an optimal communication strength, which is confirmed by the experiments. Together, our results show that information transfer between neuronal cells is externally regulated by the temporal profile of the stimuli and internally regulated by cell–cell communication. 
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  4. Contact guidance is a major physical cue that modulates cancer cell morphology and motility, and is directly linked to the prognosis of cancer patients. Under physiological conditions, particularly in the three-dimensional (3D) extracellular matrix (ECM), the disordered assembly of fibers presents a complex directional bias to the cells. It is unclear how cancer cells respond to these noncoherent contact guidance cues. Here we combine quantitative experiments, theoretical analysis, and computational modeling to study the morphological and migrational responses of breast cancer cells to 3D collagen ECM with varying degrees of fiber alignment. We quantify the strength of contact guidance using directional coherence of ECM fibers, and find that stronger contact guidance causes cells to polarize more strongly along the principal direction of the fibers. Interestingly, sensitivity to contact guidance is positively correlated with cell aspect ratio, with elongated cells responding more strongly to ECM alignment than rounded cells. Both experiments and simulations show that cell–ECM adhesions and actomyosin contractility modulate cell responses to contact guidance by inducing a population shift between rounded and elongated cells. We also find that cells rapidly change their morphology when navigating the ECM, and that ECM fiber coherence modulates cell transition rates between different morphological phenotypes. Taken together, we find that subcellular processes that integrate conflicting mechanical cues determine cell morphology, which predicts the polarization and migration dynamics of cancer cells in 3D ECM.

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  5. Collective cell migration in 3D extracellular matrix (ECM) is crucial to many physiological and pathological processes. Migrating cells can generate active pulling forces via actin filament contraction, which are transmitted to the ECM fibers and lead to a dynamically evolving force network in the system. Here, we elucidate the role of this force network in regulating collective cell behaviors using a minimal active-particle-on-network (APN) model, in which active particles can pull the fibers and hop between neighboring nodes of the network following local durotaxis. Our model reveals a dynamic transition as the particle number density approaches a critical value, from an “absorbing” state containing isolated stationary small particle clusters, to an “active” state containing a single large cluster undergoing constant dynamic reorganization. This reorganization is dominated by a subset of highly dynamic “radical” particles in the cluster, whose number also exhibits a transition at the same critical density. The transition is underlaid by the percolation of “influence spheres” due to the particle pulling forces. Our results suggest a robust mechanism based on ECM-mediated mechanical coupling for collective cell behaviors in 3D ECM. 
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