ABSTRACT Motile cells migrate directionally in the electric field in a process known as galvanotaxis. Galvanotaxis is important in wound healing, development, cell division, and nerve growth. Different cell types migrate in opposite directions in electric fields, to either cathode, or anode, and the same cell can switch the directionality depending on chemical conditions. We previously reported that individual fish keratocyte cells sense electric fields and migrate to the cathode, while inhibition of PI3K reverses single cells to the anode. Many physiological processes rely on collective, not individual, cell migration, so here we report on directional migration of cohesive cell groups in electric fields. Uninhibited cell groups of any size move to the cathode, with speed decreasing and directionality increasing with the group size. Surprisingly, large groups of PI3K-inhibited cells move to the cathode, in the direction opposite to that of individual cells, which move to the anode, while such small groups are not persistently directional. In the large groups, cells’ velocities are distributed unevenly: the fastest cells are at the front of the uninhibited groups, but at the middle and rear of the PI3K-inhibited groups. Our results are most consistent with the hypothesis, supported by the computational model, that cells inside and at the edge of the groups interpret directional signals differently. Namely, cells in the group interior are directed to the cathode independently of their chemical state. Meanwhile, edge cells behave like the individual cells: they are directed to the cathode/anode in uninhibited/PI3K-inhibited groups, respectively. As a result, all cells drive uninhibited groups to the cathode, but a mechanical tug-of-war between the inner and edge cells directs large PI3K-inhibited groups with cell majority in the interior to the cathode, while rendering small groups non-directional.
Significance statement Motile cells migrate directionally in electric fields. This behavior – galvanotaxis – is important in many physiological phenomena. Individual fish keratocytes migrate to the cathode, while inhibition of PI3K reverses single cells to the anode. Uninhibited cell groups move to the cathode. Surprisingly, large groups of PI3K-inhibited cells also move to the cathode, in the direction opposite to that of individual cells. The fastest cells are at the front of the uninhibited groups, but at the middle and rear of the PI3K-inhibited groups. We posit that inner and edge cells interpret directional signals differently, and that a tug-of-war between the edge and inner cells directs the cell groups. These results shed light on general principles of collective cell migration.