Tissue cohesion and the mechanics of cell rearrangement

David R, Luu O, Damm EW, Wen JW, Nagel M, Winklbauer R

Development 2014 Oct;141(19):3672-82

PMID: 25249459


Morphogenetic processes often involve the rapid rearrangement of cells held together by mutual adhesion. The dynamic nature of this adhesion endows tissues with liquid-like properties, such that large-scale shape changes appear as tissue flows. Generally, the resistance to flow (tissue viscosity) is expected to depend on the cohesion of a tissue (how strongly its cells adhere to each other), but the exact relationship between these parameters is not known. Here, we analyse the link between cohesion and viscosity to uncover basic mechanical principles of cell rearrangement. We show that for vertebrate and invertebrate tissues, viscosity varies in proportion to cohesion over a 200-fold range of values. We demonstrate that this proportionality is predicted by a cell-based model of tissue viscosity. To do so, we analyse cell adhesion in Xenopus embryonic tissues and determine a number of parameters, including tissue surface tension (as a measure of cohesion), cell contact fluctuation and cortical tension. In the tissues studied, the ratio of surface tension to viscosity, which has the dimension of a velocity, is 1.8 µm/min. This characteristic velocity reflects the rate of cell-cell boundary contraction during rearrangement, and sets a limit to rearrangement rates. Moreover, we propose that, in these tissues, cell movement is maximally efficient. Our approach to cell rearrangement mechanics links adhesion to the resistance of a tissue to plastic deformation, identifies the characteristic velocity of the process, and provides a basis for the comparison of tissues with mechanical properties that may vary by orders of magnitude.