Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center biologist and director of the Basic Sciences Division Dr. Jonathan Cooper studies the molecules that drive cell movement. Understanding how cells migrate through the body will help scientists better understand not only embryonic development, but disease processes such as wound healing and cancer metastasis.
Take a peek at what the researchers saw through their microscopes in this slideshow.
When cells migrate across petri dishes in the lab (or in the body), the “leading edge” of the cell forms special protein patches, known as focal adhesions and highlighted in this video in glowing white, that attach and pull on the cell’s surroundings.
These focal adhesion protein complexes come together and apart dynamically in moving cells — Teckchandani and Cooper found those complexes turn over more quickly in cells missing a protein known as Cul5 than in cells with Cul5 present. Here, overlapping images from movies of two cells' leading edges are shown; a cell with Cul5 on the left and without Cul5 on the right. Colored focal adhesions are those that with faster turnover times; white focal adhesions are more stable.
The authors used an alternative technique to look at focal adhesions in cells that are not migrating. These images show two different components of the cell’s internal infrastructure in green and purple, in cells with Cul5 (left) and cells without Cul5 (right).
The researchers also identified another protein important for focal adhesions, known as SOCS6 (shown here in green, along with another focal adhesion protein, FAK, in magenta — white shows where the two proteins are superimposed).
To understand whether SOCS6 acts directly at the leading edge of traveling cells, Teckchandani and Cooper used a cutting-edge “optogenetic” technique that uses flashes of light to tether that protein to a fixed location in the cell. When the researchers shined light on the cells (right panels), SOCS6 (shown in red) was pulled away from the focal adhesions to the cells’ centers — and the scientists saw that focal adhesions (shown in blue) no longer came apart as quickly, meaning the protein likely acts directly at the edge of cells during their migration.