Discoveries about our cells: the ability to feel relief

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

How are our cells able to detect tiny asperities in their support, the extracellular matrix, which bind them together - By what mechanism - Do they manage to modify their behavior in response to these small reliefs - These are the questions to which a team of cell biology researchers from UNamur and UCLouvain have provided major answers, which have just been published in the prestigious scientific journal Science Advances.

For many years now, scientists from UNamur and UCLouvain have been pooling their expertise in cell biology and sharing their techniques in an attempt to decipher certain cellular mechanisms. One of them is to understand how cells interact with the tiny reliefs appearing on the extracellular matrix. Their work has just resulted in a major publication in Science Advances, with Benjamin Ledoux, former UCLouvain doctoral student and now research logistician with the Morph-Im platform at UNamur, as first author.UNamur, supervised by Professor Pierre Morsomme ( Louvain Institute of Biomolecular Science and Technology - UCLouvain) and Professor Henri-François Renard ( Unité de recherche en biologie cellulaire animale (URBC) - Institut Narilis - UNamur). This work is also the fruit of a wider collaboration with teams from UCLouvain (David Alsteens from LIBST and Christine Dupont-Gillain from IMCN) and the Universities of Geneva (Switzerland) and Gyeongsang (South Korea).

"Within our organism, cells evolve in a complex environment, where they are subjected to various mechanical stresses, such as compression, stretching, shearing or even deformations of the cell membrane. The latter are often caused by the support to which our cells adhere, which can be more or less rigid, and more or less ’rough’," explains the team of scientists. " This support is called the extracellular matrix. Its roughness corresponds to the tiny reliefs on its surface, observable on a nanometric scale". In their laboratories, the researchers therefore studied the microscopic deformations of the cell membrane induced by their adhesion support, asking themselves : "Are our cells able to detect these tiny deformations - by what mechanism - and above all, are they able to modify their behavior in response to these small deformations? ".

To answer these questions, scientists have developed artificial supports to which cells can adhere and whose relief can be controlled on a nanometric scale. Using this tool and advanced microscopy techniques (LIBST’s IMABIOL and UNamur’s Morph-Im platforms), the researchers observed that cells could perceive these deformations and modify the organization of their skeleton! " We identified a molecular mechanism linking membrane deformation to the reorganization of the cellular skeleton. What’s more, we discovered that this reorganization could influence the functioning of certain cell surface receptors, directly impacting cell behavior ", the scientists explain in detail.

Their results highlight the crucial role in this process of BAR-domain proteins, a family of proteins specialized in remodeling cell membranes.

Their work could contribute to cancer research, where tumor cells are often subjected to significant mechanical stress, or to the development of biocompatible materials such as prostheses and implants. " By modulating the surface relief of implants, it is possible to modify the way our cells interact with them, and thus promote their acceptance by the body while reducing undesirable responses such as inflammation ", explains the research team.