Background: Directional cell motility implies the presence of a steering mechanism and a functional asymmetry between the front and rear of the cell. How this functional asymmetry arises and is maintained during cell locomotion is, however, unclear. Lamellar fragments of fish epidermal keratocytes, which lack nuclei, microtubules and most organelles, present a simplified, perhaps minimal, system for analyzing this problem because they consist of little other than the motile machinery enclosed by a membrane and yet can move with remarkable speed and persistence.
Results: We have produced two types of cellular fragments: discoid stationary fragments and polarized fragments undergoing locomotion. The organization and dynamics of the actin-myosin II system were isotropic in stationary fragments and anisotropic in the moving fragments. To investigate whether the creation of asymmetry could result in locomotion, a transient mechanical stimulus was applied to stationary fragments. The stimulus induced localized contraction and the formation of an actin-myosin II bundle at one edge of the fragment. Remarkably, stimulated fragments started to undergo locomotion and the locomotion and associated anisotropic organization of the actin-myosin II system were sustained after withdrawal of the stimulus.
Conclusions: We propose a model in which lamellar cytoplasm is considered a dynamically bistable system capable of existing in a non-polarized or polarized state and interconvertible by mechanical stimulus. The model explains how the anisotropic organization of the lamellum is maintained in the process of locomotion. Polarized locomotion is sustained through a positive-feedback loop intrinsic to the actin-myosin II machinery: anisotropic organization of the machinery drives translocation, which then reinforces the asymmetry of the machinery, favoring further translocation.