The broad aim of this work was to explore the feasibility of using light-directed perturbation techniques to study cell locomotion. Specifically, a caged form of thymosin beta4 (Tbeta4) was photoactivated in a defined local region of locomoting fish scale keratocytes and the resulting perturbation of locomotion was studied. Purified Tbeta4 was produced in an inactive form by "caging" with ([n-nitroveratryl]oxy)chlorocarbamate. In vitro spectrophotofluorometric assays indicated that caged Tbeta4 did not change the normal actin polymerization kinetics, whereas photoactivated Tbeta4 significantly inhibited actin polymerization. With an a priori knowledge of the cytoplasmic diffusion coefficient of Tbeta4 as measured by fluorescence recovery after photobleaching experiments, the rapid sequestration of actin monomers by uncaged Tbeta4 and the consequent reduction in the diffusional spread of the Tbeta4-actin complex were predicted using Virtual Cell software (developed at the Center for Biomedical Imaging Technology, University of Connecticut Health Center). These simulations demonstrated that locally photoactivating Tbeta4 in keratocytes could potentially elicit a regional locomotory response. Indeed, when caged Tbeta4 was locally photoactivated at the wings of locomoting keratocytes, specific turning about the irradiated region was observed, whereas various controls were negative. Additionally, loading of exogenous Tbeta4 into both keratocytes and fibroblasts caused very rapid disassembly of actin filaments and reduction of cellular contractility. Based on these results, a mechanical model is proposed for the turning behavior of keratocytes in response to photoreleased Tbeta4.