In embryonic development, cell shape changes are essential for building functional organs, but in many cases, the mechanisms that precisely regulate these changes remain unknown. We propose that fluid-like drag forces generated by the motion of an organ through surrounding tissue could generate changes to its structure that are important for its function. To test this hypothesis, we study the zebrafish left-right organizer, Kupffer's vesicle (KV), using experiments and mathematical modeling. During development, monociliated cells that comprise KV undergo region-specific shape changes along the anterior-posterior axis that are critical for KV function: anterior cells become long and thin, whereas posterior cells become short and squat. Here, we develop a mathematical vertex-like model for cell shapes that incorporates both tissue rheology and cell motility and constrain the model parameters using previously published rheological data for the zebrafish tailbud as well as our own measurements of the KV speed. We find that drag forces due to dynamics of cells surrounding KV could be sufficient or work in concert with previously identified mechanisms to drive KV cell shape changes during KV development. More broadly, these results suggest that cell shape changes during embryonic development and beyond could be driven by dynamic forces not typically considered in models or experiments.
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