Follow-the-leader cell migration requires biased cell-cell contact and local microenvironmental signals


Directed cell migration often involves at least two types of cell motility that include multicellular streaming and chain migration. However, what is unclear is how cell contact dynamics and the distinct microenvironments through which cells travel influence the selection of one migratory mode or the other. The embryonic and highly invasive neural crest (NC) are an excellent model system to study this question since NC cells have been observed in vivo to display both of these types of cell motility. Here, we present data from tissue transplantation experiments in chick and in silico modeling that test our hypothesis that cell contact dynamics with each other and the microenvironment promote and sustain either multicellular stream or chain migration. We show that when premigratory cranial NC cells (at the pre-otic level) are transplanted into a more caudal region in the head (at the post-otic level), cells alter their characteristic stream behavior and migrate in chains. Similarly, post-otic NC cells migrate in streams after transplantation into the pre-otic hindbrain, suggesting that local microenvironmental signals dictate the mode of NC cell migration. Simulations of an agent-based model (ABM) that integrates the NC cell behavioral data predict that chain migration critically depends on the interplay of biased cell-cell contact and local microenvironment signals. Together, this integrated modeling and experimental approach suggests new experiments and offers a powerful tool to examine mechanisms that underlie complex cell migration patterns.