Minimal in vitro systems shed light on cell polarity

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Cell polarity - the morphological and functional differentiation of cellular compartments in a directional manner - is required for processes such as orientation of cell division, directed cellular growth and motility. How the interplay of components within the complexity of a cell leads to cell polarity is still heavily debated. In this Review, we focus on one specific aspect of cell polarity: the non-uniform accumulation of proteins on the cell membrane. In cells, this is achieved through reaction-diffusion and/or cytoskeleton-based mechanisms. In reaction-diffusion systems, components are transformed into each other by chemical reactions and are moving through space by diffusion. In cytoskeleton-based processes, cellular components (i.e. proteins) are actively transported by microtubules (MTs) and actin filaments to specific locations in the cell. We examine how minimal systems - in vitro reconstitutions of a particular cellular function with a minimal number of components - are designed, how they contribute to our understanding of cell polarity (i.e. protein accumulation), and how they complement in vivo investigations. We start by discussing the Min protein system from Escherichia coli, which represents a reaction-diffusion system with a well-established minimal system. This is followed by a discussion of MT-based directed transport for cell polarity markers as an example of a cytoskeleton-based mechanism. To conclude, we discuss, as an example, the interplay of reaction-diffusion and cytoskeleton-based mechanisms during polarity establishment in budding yeast.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberjcs217554
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cell Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Cdc42
  • Cell polarity
  • Microtubules
  • Min proteins
  • Minimal systems
  • Reconstitution


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