Coordinated motions of close-packed multicellular systems typically generate cooperative packs, swirls, and clusters. These cooperative motions are driven by active cellular forces, but the physical nature of these forces and how they generate collective cellular motion remain poorly understood. Here, we study forces and motions in a confined epithelial monolayer and make two experimental observations: 1) the direction of local cellular motion deviates systematically from the direction of the local traction exerted by each cell upon its substrate; and 2) oscillating waves of cellular motion arise spontaneously. Based on these observations, we propose a theory that connects forces and motions using two internal state variables, one of which generates an effective cellular polarization, and the other, through contractile forces, an effective cellular inertia. In agreement with theoretical predictions, drugs that inhibit contractility reduce both the cellular effective elastic modulus and the frequency of oscillations. Together, theory and experiment provide evidence suggesting that collective cellular motion is driven by at least two internal variables that serve to sustain waves and to polarize local cellular traction in a direction that deviates systematically from local cellular velocity.
ASJC Scopus subject areas