Single, isolated epithelial cells move randomly; however, during wound healing, organism development, cancer metastasis, and many other multicellular phenomena, motile cells group into a collective and migrate persistently in a directed manner. Recent work has examined the physics and biochemistry that coordinates the motions of these groups of cells. Of late, two mechanisms have been touted as being crucial to the physics of these systems: leader cells and jamming. However, the actual importance of these to collective migration remains circumstantial. Fundamentally, collective behavior must arise from the actions of individual cells. Here, we show how biophysical activity of an isolated cell impacts collective dynamics in epithelial layers. Although many reports suggest that wound closure rates depend on isolated cell speed and/or leader cells, we find that these correlations are not universally true, nor do collective dynamics follow the trends suggested by models for jamming. Instead, our experimental data, when coupled with a mathematical model for collective migration, shows that intracellular contractile stress, isolated cell speed, and adhesion all play a substantial role in influencing epithelial dynamics, and that alterations in contraction and/or substrate adhesion can cause confluent epithelial monolayers to exhibit an increase in motility, a feature reminiscent of cancer metastasis. These results directly question the validity of wound-healing assays as a general means for measuring cell migration, and provide further insight into the salient physics of collective migration.
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