A technique to measure the forces a cell exerts as it moves through three-dimensional space is published online this week in Nature Methods.
A moving cell is in constant contact with its surrounding matrix, extending processes and applying forces that drive migration. Such movement is essential for tissue formation during development but also contributes to metastasis in cancer. Despite the fundamental biological importance of cell-generated forces, it has proven difficult to measure them in three dimensions.
Christopher Chen and colleagues present a quantitative approach to determine the traction forces of cells that are encapsulated in a hydrogel matrix. The cells migrated through the matrix, and in doing so they displaced fluorescent beads embedded in the hydrogel. The researchers used this displacement to calculate the force exerted by different parts of the cell, which gave them insights into how the tip of a migrating cell advances.
They applied this approach to several cell types to assess its general applicability and anticipate that in the future it will allow a better understanding of the role and regulation of cell movement in a range of biological settings.