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Summary

A new technique of microinterferometry permits cellular growth and motile dynamics to be studied simultaneously in living cells. In isolated chick heart fibroblasts, we have found that the non-aqueous mass of each cell tends to increase steadily, with minor fluctuations, throughout the cell cycle. The spread area of each cell also tends to increase during interphase but fluctuates between wide limits. These limits are dependent on the cell's mass and the upper limit is particularly sharp and directly proportional to mass. From a dynamical point of view, the spread area of a cell is determined by the balance between the rates of two antagonistic processes: protrusion of cellular material into new territory and retraction of material from previously occupied territory. The spatial asymmetry of these processes determines the translocation of the cell. We have found with the chick fibroblasts that the rates of the two processes are generally closely matched to each other and appear to be dependent on the cell's area of spreading. Both continue incessantly in well spread cells, even when there is no net translocation of the cell, and the lower limit of each activity is directly proportional to spread area. The two processes show different behaviour, however, during changes in the spread area of the cell. Both increases and decreases in area appear to be brought about by changes in the rate of retraction, the rate of protrusion remaining relatively constant. A simple stochastic model based on a limited supply of adhesion molecules can simulate all our observations including the mass-limited spreading, the strong correlation between protrusion and retraction and the retraction-dominated changes in area. We conclude that the spread area of the cell is actively regulated, possibly by a simple automatic mechanism that adjusts the area of spreading in relation to the mass of the cell and controls the rate of protrusion to compensate rapidly for spontaneous fluctuations in retraction.