Getting started for migration: A focus on EMT cellular dynamics and mechanics in developmental models

Cells Dev. 2021 Dec;168:203717. doi: 10.1016/j.cdev.2021.203717. Epub 2021 Jul 7.


The conversion of epithelial cells into mesenchymal ones, through a process known as epithelial-mesenchymal transition (or EMT) is a reversible process involved in critical steps of animal development as early as gastrulation and throughout organogenesis. In pathological conditions such as aggressive cancers, EMT is often associated with increased drug resistance, motility and invasiveness. The characterisation of the upstream signals and main decision takers, such as the EMT-transcription factors, has led to the identification of a core molecular machinery controlling the specification towards EMT. However, the cellular execution steps of this fundamental shift are poorly described, especially in cancerous cells. Here we review our current knowledge regarding the stepwise nature of EMT in model organisms as diverse as sea urchin, Drosophila, zebrafish, mouse or chicken. We focus on the cellular dynamics and mechanics of the transitional stages by which epithelial cells progressively become mesenchymal and leave the epithelium. We gather the currently available pieces of the puzzle, including the overlooked property of EMT cells to produce mechanical forces along their apico-basal axis before detaching from their neighbours. We discuss the interplay between EMT and the surrounding tissue. Finally, we propose a conceptual framework of EMT cell dynamics from the very first hint of epithelial cell reorganisation to the successful exit from the epithelial sheet.

Keywords: Cell adhesion; Cell dynamics; Cell polarity; Cell protrusions; Cytoskeleton; Development; EMT; Mechanical forces.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition*
  • Epithelium
  • Gastrulation
  • Mice
  • Zebrafish*