Traction force microscopy in rapidly moving cells reveals separate roles for ROCK and MLCK in the mechanics of retraction

Exp Cell Res. 2014 Aug 15;326(2):280-94. doi: 10.1016/j.yexcr.2014.04.015. Epub 2014 Apr 29.


Retraction is a major rate-limiting step in cell motility, particularly in slow moving cell types that form large stable adhesions. Myosin II dependent contractile forces are thought to facilitate detachment by physically pulling up the rear edge. However, retraction can occur in the absence of myosin II activity in cell types that form small labile adhesions. To investigate the role of contractile force generation in retraction, we performed traction force microscopy during the movement of fish epithelial keratocytes. By correlating changes in local traction stress at the rear with the area retracted, we identified four distinct modes of retraction. "Recoil" retractions are preceded by a rise in local traction stress, while rear edge is temporarily stuck, followed by a sharp drop in traction stress upon detachment. This retraction type was most common in cells generating high average traction stress. In "pull" type retractions local traction stress and area retracted increase concomitantly. This was the predominant type of retraction in keratocytes and was observed mostly in cells generating low average traction stress. "Continuous" type retractions occur without any detectable change in traction stress, and are seen in cells generating low average traction stress. In contrast, to many other cell types, "release" type retractions occur in keratocytes following a decrease in local traction stress. Our identification of distinct modes of retraction suggests that contractile forces may play different roles in detachment that are related to rear adhesion strength. To determine how the regulation of contractility via MLCK or Rho kinase contributes to the mechanics of detachment, inhibitors were used to block or augment these pathways. Modulation of MLCK activity led to the most rapid change in local traction stress suggesting its importance in regulating attachment strength. Surprisingly, Rho kinase was not required for detachment, but was essential for localizing retraction to the rear. We suggest that in keratocytes MLCK and Rho kinase play distinct, complementary roles in the respective temporal and spatial control of rear detachment that is essential for maintaining rapid motility.

Keywords: Adhesion; Cell motility; Contractility; Mechanics; Retraction; Traction stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Calcimycin / pharmacology
  • Cell Adhesion / drug effects
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology
  • Cell Movement / drug effects
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Cell Polarity / drug effects
  • Cell Polarity / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Epithelial Cells / physiology
  • Fish Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Fish Proteins / metabolism*
  • Marine Toxins
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods
  • Models, Biological
  • Myosin Type II / metabolism
  • Myosin-Light-Chain Kinase / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Myosin-Light-Chain Kinase / metabolism*
  • Oxazoles / pharmacology
  • Poecilia
  • Stress, Mechanical
  • Traction
  • rho-Associated Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • rho-Associated Kinases / metabolism*


  • Fish Proteins
  • Marine Toxins
  • Oxazoles
  • Calcimycin
  • calyculin A
  • rho-Associated Kinases
  • Myosin-Light-Chain Kinase
  • Myosin Type II