Mechanical tension influences tissue morphogenesis and the synthetic, mitotic, and motile behavior of cells. To determine the effects of tension on epithelial motility and cytoskeletal organization, small, motile clusters of epidermal cells were artificially extended with a micromanipulated needle. Protrusive activity perpendicular to the axis of tension was dramatically suppressed. To determine the ultrastructural basis for this phenomenon, cells whose exact locomotive behavior was recorded cinemicrographically were examined by transmission electron microscopy. In untensed, forward-moving lamellar protrusions, microfilaments appear disorganized and anisotropically oriented. But in cytoplasm held under tension by micromanipulation or by the locomotive activity of other cells within the epithelium, microfilaments are aligned parallel to the tension. In non-spreading regions of the epithelial margin, microfilaments lie in tight bundles parallel to apparent lines of tension. Thus, it appears that tension causes alignment of microfilaments. In contrast, intermediate filaments are excluded from motile protrusions, being confined to the thicker, more central part of the cell. They roughly follow the contours of the cell, but are not aligned relative to tension even when microfilaments in the same cell are. This suggests that the organization of intermediate filaments is relatively resistant to physical distortion and the intermediate filaments may act as passive structural support within the cell. The alignment of microfilaments under tension suggests a mechanism by which tension suppresses protrusive activity: microfilaments aligned by forces exerted through filament-surface or filament-filament interconnections cannot reorient against such force and so cannot easily extend protrusions in directions not parallel to tension.

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