Mechanisms of 3D cell migration

Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2019 Dec;20(12):738-752. doi: 10.1038/s41580-019-0172-9. Epub 2019 Oct 3.


Cell migration is essential for physiological processes as diverse as development, immune defence and wound healing. It is also a hallmark of cancer malignancy. Thousands of publications have elucidated detailed molecular and biophysical mechanisms of cultured cells migrating on flat, 2D substrates of glass and plastic. However, much less is known about how cells successfully navigate the complex 3D environments of living tissues. In these more complex, native environments, cells use multiple modes of migration, including mesenchymal, amoeboid, lobopodial and collective, and these are governed by the local extracellular microenvironment, specific modalities of Rho GTPase signalling and non-muscle myosin contractility. Migration through 3D environments is challenging because it requires the cell to squeeze through complex or dense extracellular structures. Doing so requires specific cellular adaptations to mechanical features of the extracellular matrix (ECM) or its remodelling. In addition, besides navigating through diverse ECM environments and overcoming extracellular barriers, cells often interact with neighbouring cells and tissues through physical and signalling interactions. Accordingly, cells need to call on an impressively wide diversity of mechanisms to meet these challenges. This Review examines how cells use both classical and novel mechanisms of locomotion as they traverse challenging 3D matrices and cellular environments. It focuses on principles rather than details of migratory mechanisms and draws comparisons between 1D, 2D and 3D migration.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology*
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Extracellular Matrix / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*