The growth cone must push its substrate rearward via some traction force in order to propel itself forward. To determine which growth cone behaviors produce traction force, we observed chick sensory growth cones under conditions in which force production was accommodated by movement of obstacles in the environment, namely, neurites of other sensory neurons or glass fibers. The movements of these obstacles occurred via three, different, stereotyped growth cone behaviors: (a) filopodial contractions, (b) smooth rearward movement on the dorsal surface of the growth cone, and (c) interactions with ruffling lamellipodia. More than 70% of the obstacle movements were caused by filopodial contractions in which the obstacle attached at the extreme distal end of a filopodium and moved only as the filopodium changed its extension. Filopodial contractions were characterized by frequent changes of obstacle velocity and direction. Contraction of a single filopodium is estimated to exert 50-90 microdyn of force, which can account for the pull exerted by chick sensory growth cones. Importantly, all five cases of growth cones growing over the top of obstacle neurites (i.e., geometry that mimics the usual growth cone/substrate interaction), were of the filopodial contraction type. Some 25% of obstacle movements occurred by a smooth backward movement along the top surface of growth cones. Both the appearance and rate of movements were similar to that reported for retrograde flow of cortical actin near the dorsal growth cone surface. Although these retrograde flow movements also exerted enough force to account for growth cone pulling, we did not observe such movements on ventral growth cone surfaces. Occasionally obstacles were moved by interaction with ruffling lamellipodia. However, we obtained no evidence for attachment of the obstacles to ruffling lamellipodia or for directed obstacle movements by this mechanism. These data suggest that chick sensory growth cones move forward by contractile activity of filopodia, i.e., isometric contraction on a rigid substrate. Our data argue against retrograde flow of actin producing traction force.

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