Hydrodynamics of transient cell-cell contact: The role of membrane permeability and active protrusion length

PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Apr 25;15(4):e1006352. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006352. eCollection 2019 Apr.


In many biological settings, two or more cells come into physical contact to form a cell-cell interface. In some cases, the cell-cell contact must be transient, forming on timescales of seconds. One example is offered by the T cell, an immune cell which must attach to the surface of other cells in order to decipher information about disease. The aspect ratio of these interfaces (tens of nanometers thick and tens of micrometers in diameter) puts them into the thin-layer limit, or "lubrication limit", of fluid dynamics. A key question is how the receptors and ligands on opposing cells come into contact. What are the relative roles of thermal undulations of the plasma membrane and deterministic forces from active filopodia? We use a computational fluid dynamics algorithm capable of simulating 10-nanometer-scale fluid-structure interactions with thermal fluctuations up to seconds- and microns-scales. We use this to simulate two opposing membranes, variously including thermal fluctuations, active forces, and membrane permeability. In some regimes dominated by thermal fluctuations, proximity is a rare event, which we capture by computing mean first-passage times using a Weighted Ensemble rare-event computational method. Our results demonstrate a parameter regime in which the time it takes for an active force to drive local contact actually increases if the cells are being held closer together (e.g., by nonspecific adhesion), a phenomenon we attribute to the thin-layer effect. This leads to an optimal initial cell-cell separation for fastest receptor-ligand binding, which could have relevance for the role of cellular protrusions like microvilli. We reproduce a previous experimental observation that fluctuation spatial scales are largely unaffected, but timescales are dramatically slowed, by the thin-layer effect. We also find that membrane permeability would need to be above physiological levels to abrogate the thin-layer effect.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology
  • Cell Membrane / physiology*
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / physiology*
  • Cell Surface Extensions / physiology*
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Hydrodynamics*
  • Models, Biological*

Grants and funding

This work was supported by National Science Foundation (nsf.gov) grant DMS 1454739 to JA, National Science Foundation grant DMS 1715455 to ELR, National Science Foundation grant DMS 1763272 to JA and JL, and a grant from the Simons Foundation (www.simonsfoundation.org) to JA and JL. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.