University of Dundee

Professor Kees Weijer FRSE

Cell-cell signalling and chemotactic cell movement during development
Professor of Developmental Physiology and Head of Systems Biology
College of Life Sciences, University of Dundee, Dundee
Full Telephone: 
+44 (0) 1382 385191, int ext 85191


 Cell movement plays an essential role in the embryonic development of multicellular organisms, especially during gastrulation, formation of the nervous system and organogenesis. When not properly controlled it results in severe congenital defects and disease in later life. Cell movement is often guided by gradients of diffusible attractive and repulsive signalling molecules (chemotaxis). Important open questions are how do cells after detection of gradients of chemo-attractants/repellents translate this information in polarised organisation of the actin myosin cytoskeleton to result in directed movement up or down these signalling gradients?. A further key question is how chemotactic signalling and cell movement interact to create new tissues? We study these questions using a variety of multidisciplinary approaches in two model organisms, the genetically tractable social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum and during gastrulation in the chick embryo.

Dictyostelium cells show very efficient homologies recombination, allowing the fast generation of targeted gene disruptions and replacements. We use these techniques in combination with high resolution SILAC based proteomics, TIRF and confocal imaging, dedicated microfluidic devices and detailed mathematical modelling to to study the molecular basis of serpentine receptor mediated chemotactic signal transduction to and organisation of the actin-myosin cytoskeleton (fig. 1). Dictyostelium cells do not only detect and move in response to the chemo-attractant cAMP, but they can also amplify and pass on cAMP signals to neighbouring cells, a process that results in the generation of propagating waves of cAMP (fig. 1). We study how these interactions between cAMP wave propagation and cell movement result in emergent behaviours and morphogenesis at the tissue level using again molecular genetics, advanced imaging and detailed mathematical modelling

Figure 1: Aggregation of Dictyostelium cells is coordinated by propagating waves of cAMP, which can be visualised through their associated dark field waves. These darkfield waves reflect bands of moving and non-moving cells. The waves propagate from the centres outward (blue arrows in A) and direct the inward motion of the cells towards the aggregation centre (red arrows). Cells in a cAMP wave polarise, they produce PIP3 in the front (B, D), which is stabilised by PTEN localising to the back of the cells (C). Cell movement in slugs is also organised by waves propagating from the tip to the slug posterior and in slugs (E) Slug cells also polarise by making PIP3 (F) in the front of the cells and localising PTEN to the back (G). Slug cells make cell-cell and cell-matrix contacts that are required for getting traction during movement (H).

To study cell movement during gastrulation in the chick embryo we use a combination of advanced in-vivo imaging methods and computational data analysis and modelling techniques. We have designed and build a lightsheet microscope that allows us to image all (>100.000) cells in the early chick embryo and to analyse their individual behaviours over extended periods of time (fig 2). These massive data sets allow us to understand how the behaviour of so many cells is coordinated and integrated to result in the large scale tissue flows and deformations that underlie the formation of the primitive streak. Furthermore we are characterising the movement of mesoderm cells after their ingression through the streak (fig 3). Our results show that their complex movements appears to be controlled by a sequential combination of positive and negative chemotactic responses to different FGF’s and VEGF’s and also involves other as yet uncharacterised chemo-attractants.  

Figure 2: Light sheet microscopy to study tissue dynamics during chick gastrulation. A: schematic of lightsheet microscope showing the orthogonal illumination and imaging axes. B: upper image sequence showing dividing cell (red dot) at 10x, lower image sequence showing ingressing cell (red dot). C: Overview image of early chick embryo derived from 3000 optical sections take every 2 minutes. The arrows indicate the direction and magnitude of epiblast tissue flow as calculated by Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV). D: blow up of centre of vortex show in red box in C

Figure 3: Migration of cells in mesoderm cells during the early stages of gastrulation. A: Image of a stage HH3 embryo directly after grafting a piece of middle streak tissue from a transgenic GFP expressing chick embryo of a similar stage in a homotypic position photograph of cell shape of GFP graft. B: Image of the same embryo after 20 hours incubation in culture. Most of the cells have migrated out of the streak where they will form the vasculature in the Area Opaca. The most anterior cells have stated to migrate back to participate in the formation of the embryonic vasculature. C: Higher magnification image of cells in the process of migrating out of the streak. It can be clearly seen that the cells are in close contact and highly polarised in the direction of migration. D: High magnification image of a few mesoderm cells at the edge of the cohort. Notice the very extensive cellular processes. E: Composite image of typical migration patterns observed of cell migrating from different antero-posterior positions in the streak during development from stage HH4 to stage HH7 (20 hours). Cells in the anterior streak migrate outward and then back in to form the somites (red tracks). Cells from the middle streak migrate out to form lateral plate mesoderm (yellow tracks) and cells located in the posterior streak migrate out in the extra-embryonic area to form the vasculature (green tracks).


BS31004 - Biochemistry and Cell Biology

BS32005 - Developmental Biology


Recent and selected publications

Rozbicki E, Chuai M, Karjalainen AI, Song F, Sang HM, Martin R, Knölker HJ, MacDonald MP, Weijer CJ. (2015) Myosin-II-mediated cell shape changes and cell intercalation contribute to primitive streak formation Nat. Cell. Biol  17, 397 – 408  doi:10.1038/ncb3138

Du CJ, Tyson RA, Rozbicki E, Weijer CJ, Bretschneider T. (2014) Multi-Scale Non-Local Means with Shape Prior for Enhancement of Cell Membrane Images. 2014 IEEE 11th International Symposium on Biomedical Imaging (ISBI). pp 493-496. doi: 10.1109/isbi.2014.6867916.

Pineda M, Weijer CJ, Eftimie R. (2015) Modelling cell movement, cell differentiation, cell sorting and proportion regulation in Dictyostelium discoideum aggregations. J Theor Biol,  370:135-150. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2015.01.042.

Hughes DA, Qiu Y, Démoré C, Weijer CJ, Cochran S. (2015)
Ultrasonics. 56:172-7.  doi: 10.1016/j.ultras.2014.09.017.

Sobczyk GJ, Wang J, Weijer CJ (2014) SILAC-based proteomic quantification of chemoattractant-induced cytoskeleton dynamics on a second to minute timescale.  Nat Commun. 2014 Feb 26;5:3319.  doi: 10.1038/ncomms4319

Chuai M, Hughes D, Weijer CJ (2012) Collective Epithelial and Mesenchymal Cell Migration during Early Embryogenesis. Current Genetics 13 (2012) 267-27

Sandersius SA, Chuai M, Weijer CJ, Newman TJ. (2011) A 'chemotactic dipole' mechanism for large-scale vortex motion during primitive streak formation in the chick embryo. Phys Biol. Aug;8(4):045008. Epub 2011 Jul 12.

Sandersius SA, Chuai M, Weijer CJ, Newman TJ (2011) Correlating cell behavior with tissue topology in embryonic epithelia. PLoS One Apr 29;6(4):e18081.

Davidson L, Maccario H, Perera NM, Yang X, Spinelli L, Tibarewal P, Glancy B, Gray A, Weijer CJ, Downes CP and Lesie NR (2010) Suppression of cellular proliferation and invasion by the concerted lipid and protein phosphatase activities of PTEN. Oncogene 29(5):687-697.

Vasiev B, Balter A, Chaplain M, Glazier JA and Weijer CJ (2010) Modeling gastrulation in the chick embryo: formation of the primitive streak. PLoS One 5(5):e10571.

Manli Chuai and Cornelis J. Weijer. (2009) Regulation of cell migration during chick gastrulation.  Current opinion Gene & development Volume 19, Issue 4 (2009) 343-349

Chuai ML and Weijer CJ. (2009) Who moves whom during primitive streak formation in the chick embryo. HFSP J 3(2):71-76.

Chuai M, Dormann, D, and Weijer CJ. (2009) Imaging cell signalling and movement in development. Semin Cell Dev Biol 20(8):947-55.

Weijer, CJ. (2009) Collective cell migration in development. J of Cell Science. 122(18):3215-3223.

Yang, XS, Chrisman H and Weijer CJ. (2008) PDGF signalling controls the migration of mesoderm cells during chick gastrulation by regulating N-cadherin expression. Development 135(21):3521-3530.

Chuai M, Weijer CJ. (2008) The mechanisms underlying primitive streak formation in the chick embryo.Curr Top Dev Biol.81:135-56.

Iimura T, Yang X, Weijer CJ, Pourquié O. (2007) Dual mode of paraxial mesoderm formation during chick gastrulation. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 104:2744-9.

Leslie NR, Yang X, Downes CP, Weijer CJ. 2007 PtdIns(3,4,5)P(3)-dependent and -independent roles for PTEN in the control of cell migration. Curr Biol. 17:115-25.

Dormann D, Weijer CJ. (2006) Imaging of cell migration. EMBO J. 25:3480-93.

Chuai M, Zeng W, Yang X, Boychenko V, Glazier JA, Weijer CJ. (2006) Cell movement during chick primitive streak formation.Dev Biol. 296:137-49.

Bukahrova T, Weijer G, Bosgraaf L, Dormann D, van Haastert PJ, Weijer CJ. 2005 Paxillin is required for cell-substrate adhesion, cell sorting and slug migration during Dictyostelium development. J Cell Sci. 118:4295-310.

Affolter M, Weijer CJ. (2005) Signaling to cytoskeletal dynamics during chemotaxis. Dev Cell.9:19-34.

Cui C, Yang X, Chuai M, Glazier JA, Weijer CJ. (2005) Analysis of tissue flow patterns during primitive streak formation in the chick embryo. Dev Biol. 284: 37-47

Dormann D, Weijer G, Dowler S, Weijer CJ. (2004) In vivo analysis of 3-phosphoinositide dynamics during Dictyostelium phagocytosis and chemotaxis.J Cell Sci.;117:6497-509.

Dormann, D. and C.J. Weijer (2001) Development, 128: 4535-43.

Patel, H. et al (2000) Embo Journal, 19: 2247-2256.

Dormann, D. et al. (2001) Development, 128: 1081-1088.

Yang, X. et al (2002) Dev Cell, 3: 425-437.

Dormann, D. et al (2002) Curr Biol, 12: 1178-88.