Dynamic conversion of cell sorting patterns in aggregates of embryonic stem cells with differential adhesive affinity

Jeffrey D. Tse, Robert Moore, Yue Meng, Wensi Tao, Elizabeth R. Smith, Xiang Xi Xu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Mammalian early development comprises the proliferation, differentiation, and self-assembly of the embryonic cells. The classic experiment undertaken by Townes and Holtfreter demonstrated the ability of dissociated embryonic cells to sort and self-organize spontaneously into the original tissue patterns. Here, we further explored the principles and mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of spontaneous tissue organization by studying aggregation and sorting of mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells with differential adhesive affinity in culture. Results: As observed previously, in aggregates of wild-type and E-cadherin-deficient ES cells, the cell assemblies exhibited an initial sorting pattern showing wild-type cells engulfed by less adhesive E-cadherin-deficient ES cells, which fits the pattern predicted by the differential adhesive hypothesis proposed by Malcom Steinberg. However, in further study of more mature cell aggregates, the initial sorting pattern reversed, with the highly adhesive wild-type ES cells forming an outer shell enveloping the less adhesive E-cadherin-deficient cells, contradicting Steinberg’s sorting principle. The outer wild-type cells of the more mature aggregates did not differentiate into endoderm, which is known to be able to sort to the exterior from previous studies. In contrast to the naive aggregates, the mature aggregates presented polarized, highly adhesive cells at the outer layer. The surface polarity was observed as an actin cap contiguously spanning across the apical surface of multiple adjacent cells, though independent of the formation of tight junctions. Conclusions: Our experimental findings suggest that the force of differential adhesive affinity can be overcome by even subtle polarity generated from strong bilateral ligation of highly adhesive cells in determining cell sorting patterns.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2
JournalBMC Developmental Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Adhesive
  • Apical polarity
  • Cell sorting
  • Cell spontaneous assembly
  • Differential adhesion hypothesis
  • Differential adhesive hypothesis
  • E-cadherin
  • Embryoid body
  • Embryonic development
  • Embryonic stem (ES) cells
  • Morphogenesis
  • Self-assembly

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology


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