Rac activation is key to cell motility and directionality: An experimental and modelling investigation

Comput Struct Biotechnol J. 2019 Nov 7:17:1436-1452. doi: 10.1016/j.csbj.2019.10.002. eCollection 2019.


Cell migration is a tightly-regulated process that involves protein gradients formed by the Rho family of GTPases, including Rho and Rac. The front (rear) of cells is generally characterized by higher active Rac (Rho) and lower active Rho (Rac) concentrations. Protein clusters, called adhesions, that anchor cells to their external environment have been shown to be dynamic and small (stable and large) at the cell front (rear), forming the force-transmission points necessary for persistent movement. Differences in adhesion sizes and dynamics have been linked to gradients in Rac and Rho activity. Here, we study the effects of Rac activation and gradients in Rac and Rho concentrations and activities on cellular polarity and adhesion size using mathematical and experimental approaches. The former is accomplished by expanding an existing reaction-diffusion model to a 2D domain utilizing stochastic dynamics. The model revealed that a hysteresis between the induced/uninduced states (corresponding to higher/lower Rac concentrations, respectively) along with Rac and Rho activation gradients, generated by chemical cues, were vital for forming polarity. Experimentally, the induced state was generated by increasing the cellular βPIX (a Rac-GEF) level and/or decreasing ROCK (a Rac-GAP effector protein) activity with Y-27632 (a ROCK-inhibitor). In agreement with the simulations, our results showed that cells with elevated RacGTP migrated faster, indicating more robust cellular polarization. However, the directionality of cells was not changed significantly, suggesting that external and/or internal physical or chemical cues were needed. Complementing the faster migration observed, adhesions were smaller, generating the phenotype expected with the induced state.

Keywords: Adhesion size; Cellular polarity; Hysteresis and bistability; Molecularly explicit spatiotemporal model; ROCK inhibitor; Rho family of GTPases; Stochastic simulations; βPIX-dependent Rac activation.