Dynamics and ultrastructure of developmental cell fusions in the Caenorhabditis elegans hypodermis

Curr Biol. 1998 Sep 24;8(19):1087-90. doi: 10.1016/s0960-9822(98)70447-6.


Cell fusions produce multinucleate syncytia that are crucial to the structure of essential tissues in many organisms [1-5]. In humans the entire musculature, much of the placenta, and key cells in bones and blood are derived from cell fusion. Yet the developmental fusion of cell membranes has never been directly observed and is poorly understood. Similarity between viral fusion proteins and recently discovered cellular proteins implies that both cell-cell and virus-cell fusion may occur by a similar mechanism [6-8]. Paradoxically, however, fusion of enveloped viruses with cells involves an opening originating as a single pore [9-11], whereas electron microscopy studies of cell-cell fusion describe simultaneous breakdown of large areas of membrane [12, 13]. Here, we have shown that developmental cell fusion is indeed consistent with initiation by a virus-like, pore-forming mechanism. We examined live cell fusions in the epithelia of Caenorhabditis elegans embryos by a new method that integrates multiphoton, confocal, and electron microscopy. The fusion aperture always originated at a single point restricted to the apical adherens junction and widened slowly as a radial wavefront. The fusing membranes dispersed by vesiculation, rather than simple unfolding of the conjoined double bilayer. Thus, in these cells fusion appears to require two specialized sequential processes: formation of a unique primary pore and expansion of the opening by radial internalization of the interacting cell membranes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / cytology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / embryology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Cell Fusion
  • Epithelial Cells / ultrastructure*
  • Giant Cells / ultrastructure
  • Intercellular Junctions / ultrastructure
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Morphogenesis