Cells sense physical signals through cytoskeletal waves

A recent study titled “Nanotopography modulates intracellular excitable systems through cytoskeleton actuation,” published on May 1, 2023, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has shed light on how respond to physical signals. Led by the University of Maryland, the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) team behind the study believes that understanding how cells sense the physical could lead to innovative treatments for conditions like tumors, immune diseases, and wound healing.

The research, led by Wolfgang Losert, a physics professor at UMD, explores the distinction between chemical and physical signals. While chemical signals are significantly smaller than a human hair, physical cues have a much larger impact. The study investigates how cells sense physical cues that are about 100 times larger than chemical signaling .

The team focused on the cell's cytoskeleton, a network of surrounding the cell that acts as a direct sensor of the physical environment, as well as actin, a responsible for cell connectivity, and the cell's signaling pathways. By studying these components, the researchers gained insight into how cells react to physical cues, such as pain.

One of the key findings is that the networks guiding cell migration play different roles in chemical sensing versus physical, topographic sensing. Additionally, actin was identified as the direct sensor for both types of signals, confirming its crucial role in sensing physical cues.

The study's findings highlight the importance of mechano-chemical waves within cells for sensing signals from the physical environment. These waves, akin to patterns in the ocean informing an experienced surfer about the undersea topography, are instrumental in understanding and responding to larger physical cues. This understanding could inform the design of physical interventions to manipulate cell behavior.

The research also has implications for and treatment decisions. Previous studies have shown that actin dynamics differ in highly invasive cells. By comprehending how drugs affect these waves, researchers may gain valuable insights for determining treatment options. Moreover, the study's findings offer suggestions for enhancing the targeting ability of immune cells.

Overall, this study contributes to unraveling the mysteries of how cells react to physical cues, paving the way for potential breakthroughs in treating various diseases by manipulating the physical cellular environment.

Source: University of Maryland

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