Comm. Phys. 1, 73 (2018)

Migrating cells use all kinds of tricks to get a sense of their surroundings. The filamentous meshwork under the membrane of many cells transduces forces and establishes the polarity required for directed migration. But it’s also known to play host to dynamic pattern formation — including waves in the cell’s shape. Now, Cody Reeves and colleagues have come up with a theory predicting that competition between rotating waves may have a role in making the cell transition from a stationary state to a polarized, steadily moving state.

A spontaneous polarization in cell shape usually kick-starts migration, growing in amplitude until it induces persistent motion — and multiple waves can compete to elicit the same effect. Using a phase field approach, Reeves et al. showed that rotating waves emerge within a minimal physical model that doesn’t explicitly encode the biochemical or genetic cues typically associated with cell migration. Instead, the model considers only protrusion, adhesion and feedback via adhesive bond breaking.