Our paper, “Small-scale demixing in confluent biological tissues” just appeared in Soft Matter.
Surface tension governed by differential adhesion can drive fluid particle mixtures to sort into separate regions, i.e., demix. Does the same phenomenon occur in confluent biological tissues? We begin to answer this question for epithelial monolayers with a combination of theory via a vertex model and experiments on keratinocyte monolayers. Vertex models are distinct from particle models in that the interactions between the cells are shape-based, as opposed to distance-dependent. We investigate whether a disparity in cell shape or size alone is sufficient to drive demixing in bidisperse vertex model fluid mixtures. Surprisingly, we observe that both types of bidisperse systems robustly mix on large lengthscales. On the other hand, shape disparity generates slight demixing over a few cell diameters, a phenomenon we term micro-demixing. This result can be understood by examining the differential energy barriers for neighbor exchanges (T1 transitions). Experiments with mixtures of wild-type and E-cadherin-deficient keratinocytes on a substrate are consistent with the predicted phenomenon of micro-demixing, which biology may exploit to create subtle patterning. The robustness of mixing at large scales, however, suggests that despite some differences in cell shape and size, progenitor cells can readily mix throughout a developing tissue until acquiring means of recognizing cells of different types.