The mechanics of cell sorting and envelopment

J Biomech. 2000 Jul;33(7):845-51. doi: 10.1016/s0021-9290(00)00011-7.


Aggregates of embryonic cells undergo a variety of intriguing processes including sorting by histological type and envelopment of cell masses of one type by another. It has long been held that these processes were driven by differential adhesions, as embodied in the famous differential adhesion hypothesis (DAH). Here, we use analytical mechanics to investigate the forces that are generated by various sub-cellular structures including microfilaments, cell membranes and their associated proteins, and by sources of cell-cell adhesions. We consider how these forces cause the triple junctions between cells to move, and how these motions ultimately give rise to phenomena such as cell sorting and tissue envelopment. The analyses show that, contrary to the widely accepted DAH, differential adhesions alone are unable to drive sorting and envelopment. They show, instead, that these phenomena are driven by the combined effect of several force generators, as embodied in an equivalent surface or interfacial tension. These unconventional findings follow directly from the relevant surface physics and mechanics, and are consistent with well-known cell sorting and envelopment experiments, and with recent computer simulations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Actin Cytoskeleton / physiology
  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology
  • Cell Adhesion Molecules / physiology
  • Cell Aggregation / physiology
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*
  • Surface Tension
  • Thermodynamics


  • Cell Adhesion Molecules