There is a body of literature that describes the geometry and the physics of filopodia using either stochastic models or partial differential equations and elasticity and coarse-grained theory. Comparatively, there is a paucity of models focusing on the regulation of the network of proteins that control the formation of different actin structures. Using a combination of in-vivo and in-vitro experiments together with a system of ordinary differential equations, we focused on a small number of well-characterized, interacting molecules involved in actin-dependent filopodia formation: the actin remodeler Eps8, whose capping and bundling activities are a function of its ligands, Abi-1 and IRSp53, respectively; VASP and Capping Protein (CP), which exert antagonistic functions in controlling filament elongation. The model emphasizes the essential role of complexes that contain the membrane deforming protein IRSp53, in the process of filopodia initiation. This model accurately accounted for all observations, including a seemingly paradoxical result whereby genetic removal of Eps8 reduced filopodia in HeLa, but increased them in hippocampal neurons, and generated quantitative predictions, which were experimentally verified. The model further permitted us to explain how filopodia are generated in different cellular contexts, depending on the dynamic interaction established by Eps8, IRSp53 and VASP with actin filaments, thus revealing an unexpected plasticity of the signaling network that governs the multifunctional activities of its components in the formation of filopodia.
Cells move and interact with the environment by forming migratory structures composed of self organized polymers of actin. These protrusions can be flat and short surfaces, the lamellipodia, or adopt an elongated, finger-like shape called filopodia. In this article, we analyze the ‘computation’ performed by cells when they opt to form filopodia. We focus our attention on some initiators of filopodia that play an essential role due to their interaction with the cell membrane. We analyze the formation of these filopodia initiators in different genotypes, thus providing a way to rationalize the behaviors of different cells in terms of tendency to form filopodia. Our results, based on the combination of experimental and computational approaches, suggest that cells have developed molecular networks that are extremely flexible in their capability to follow the path leading to filopodia formation. In this sense the role of an element of the network, Eps8, is paradigmatic, as this protein can both induce or inhibit the formation of filopodia depending on the cellular context.