The differential adhesion hypothesis: a direct evaluation

Dev Biol. 2005 Feb 1;278(1):255-63. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2004.11.012.


The differential adhesion hypothesis (DAH), advanced in the 1960s, proposed that the liquid-like tissue-spreading and cell segregation phenomena of development arise from tissue surface tensions that in turn arise from differences in intercellular adhesiveness. Our earlier measurements of liquid-like cell aggregate surface tensions have shown that, without exception, a cell aggregate of lower surface tension tends to envelop one of higher surface tension to which it adheres. We here measure the surface tensions of L cell aggregates transfected to express N-, P- or E-cadherin in varied, measured amounts. We report that in these aggregates, in which cadherins are essentially the only cell-cell adhesion molecules, the aggregate surface tensions are a direct, linear function of cadherin expression level. Taken together with our earlier results, the conclusion follows that the liquid-like morphogenetic cell and tissue rearrangements of cell sorting, tissue spreading and segregation represent self-assembly processes guided by the diminution of adhesive-free energy as cells tend to maximize their mutual binding. This conclusion relates to the physics governing these morphogenetic phenomena and applies independently of issues such as the specificities of intercellular adhesives.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Cadherins / genetics
  • Cadherins / metabolism
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology*
  • Cell Aggregation
  • Gene Expression
  • L Cells
  • Mice
  • Models, Biological*
  • Morphogenesis / physiology*
  • Surface Tension
  • Thermodynamics
  • Transfection


  • Cadherins