An analysis of cells grown on micro-patterned lines, and of cells during zebrafish development, identifies a population of microtubules that align along the long axis of cells to mediate homeostatic length control.
Because physical form and function are intimately linked, mechanisms that maintain cell shape and size within strict limits are likely to be important for a wide variety of biological processes. However, while intrinsic controls have been found to contribute to the relatively well-defined shape of bacteria and yeast cells, the extent to which individual cells from a multicellular animal control their plastic form remains unclear. Here, using micropatterned lines to limit cell extension to one dimension, we show that cells spread to a characteristic steady-state length that is independent of cell size, pattern width, and cortical actin. Instead, homeostatic length control on lines depends on a population of dynamic microtubules that lead during cell extension, and that are aligned along the long cell axis as the result of interactions of microtubule plus ends with the lateral cell cortex. Similarly, during the development of the zebrafish neural tube, elongated neuroepithelial cells maintain a relatively well-defined length that is independent of cell size but dependent upon oriented microtubules. A simple, quantitative model of cellular extension driven by microtubules recapitulates cell elongation on lines, the steady-state distribution of microtubules, and cell length homeostasis, and predicts the effects of microtubule inhibitors on cell length. Together this experimental and theoretical analysis suggests that microtubule dynamics impose unexpected limits on cell geometry that enable cells to regulate their length. Since cells are the building blocks and architects of tissue morphogenesis, such intrinsically defined limits may be important for development and homeostasis in multicellular organisms.
Because many physical processes change with scale, size control is a fundamental problem for living systems. While in some instances the size of a structure is directly determined by the dimensions of its individual constituents, many biological structures are dynamic, self-organising assemblies of relatively small component parts. How such assemblies are maintained within defined size limits remains poorly understood. Here, by confining cells to spread on lines, we show that animal cells reach a defined length that is independent of their volume and width. In searching for a “ruler” that might determine this axial limit to cell spreading, we identified a population of dynamic microtubule polymers that become oriented along the long axis of cells. This growing population of oriented microtubules drives extension of the spreading cell margin while, conversely, interactions with the cell margin promote microtubule depolymerisation, leading to cell shortening. Using a mathematical model we show that this coupling of dynamic microtubule polymerisation and depolymerisation with directed cell elongation is sufficient to explain the limit to cell spreading and cell length homeostasis. Because microtubules appear to regulate cell length in a similar way in the developing zebrafish neural tube, we suggest that this microtubule-dependent mechanism is likely to be of widespread importance for the regulation of cell and tissue geometry.