Mechanosensitive junction remodelling promotes robust epithelial morphogenesis.
Abstract: Morphogenesis of epithelial tissues requires tight spatiotemporal coordination of cell shape changes. In vivo, many tissue-scale shape changes are driven by pulsatile contractions of intercellular junctions, which are rectified to produce irreversible deformations. The functional role of this pulsatory ratchet and its mechanistic basis remain unknown. Here we combine theory and biophysical experiments to show that mechanosensitive tension remodelling of epithelial cell junctions promotes robust epithelial shape changes via ratcheting. Using optogenetic control of actomyosin contractility, we find that epithelial junctions show elastic behaviour under low contractile stress, returning to their original lengths after contraction, but undergo irreversible deformation under higher magnitudes of contractile stress. Existing vertex-based models for the epithelium are unable to capture these results, with cell junctions displaying purely elastic or fluid-like behaviours, depending on the choice of model parameters. To describe the experimental results, we propose a modified vertex model with two essential ingredients for junction mechanics: thresholded tension remodelling and continuous strain relaxation. First, a critical strain threshold for tension remodelling triggers irreversible junction length changes for sufficiently strong contractions, making the system robust to small fluctuations in contractile activity. Second, continuous strain relaxation allows for mechanical memory removal, enabling frequency-dependent modulation of cell shape changes via mechanical ratcheting. Taken together, the combination of mechanosensitive tension remodelling and junctional strain relaxation provides a robust mechanism for large-scale morphogenesis.