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Our article in Nature Physics: How cells stick together

Physical effects play a crucial role for formation and stability of cell-cell contacts. This is the conclusion of a recent investigation that “Nature Physics” reports about. Dr. Susanne Fenz performed these experiments together with Professor Rudolf Merkel at the Institute of Complex Systems of Forschungszentrum Jülich. In the meantime Dr. Fenz is working as a biophysicist at Biozentrum of Würzburg University. Scientists from Stuttgart, Erlangen and Marseille are also involved.
For many cells of the body it is enormously important that they hold together and separate in a controlled way. The significance of cell-cell contacts becomes particularly evident when they fail. For example when they loosen in a tumor and cells detach: in this case the cellular tissue of the tumor tends to dissolve and to form metastases.
The cadherin-proteins play a major role for these contacts. They are located in the cell membranes and are able to bind among each other but also with the cadherins of other cells. A binding between two cadherin molecules of two cells is thereby basically the initial signal for the formation of extended contact areas. The process of forming and dismantling contacts is obviously much stronger dependent on purely physical effects than previously assumed as proven by computer simulations and experiments for this investigation.
The scientists brought cadherin-containing model membranes into contact with each other and thus specifically changed different physical parameters which influence the fluctuation behavior of the membrane. Even slight alterations had major effects on the formation and growth of cell-cell contacts. “Hence it is possible to control a biological process by changing purely physical parameters namely temperature or local structure of lipids of the membrane” according to Susanne Fenz. To what extent the results of the model membranes can be carried over to living systems remains to be examined.

Original publications:
Susanne F. Fenz, Timo Bihr, Daniel Schmidt, Rudolf Merkel, Udo Seifert, Kheya Sengupta & Ana-Sunčana Smith: Membrane fluctuations mediate lateral interaction between cadherin bonds. Nature Physics, 12 June 2017, DOI: 10.1038/nphys4138

Press release of Würzburg University: