Recent experimental studies of the role of microtubule sliding in neurite outgrowth suggested a qualitative model, according to which kinesin-1 motors push the minus-end-out microtubules against the cell membrane and generate the early cell processes. At the later stage, dynein takes over the sliding, expels the minus-end-out microtubules from the neurites, and pulls in the plus-end-out microtubules that continue to elongate the nascent axon. This model leaves unanswered a number of questions: why is dynein unable to generate the processes alone, whereas kinesin-1 can? What is the role of microtubule dynamics in process initiation and growth? Can the model correctly predict the rates of process growth in control and dynein-inhibited cases? What triggers the transition from kinesin-driven to dynein-driven sliding? To answer these questions, we combine computational modeling of a network of elastic dynamic microtubules and kinesin-1 and dynein motors with measurements of the process growth kinetics and pharmacological perturbations in Drosophila S2 cells. The results verify quantitatively the qualitative model of the microtubule polarity sorting and suggest that dynein-powered elongation is effective only when the processes are longer than a threshold length, which explains why kinesin-1 alone, but not dynein, is sufficient for the process growth. Furthermore, we show that the mechanism of process elongation depends critically on microtubule dynamic instability. Both modeling and experimental measurements show, surprisingly, that dynein inhibition accelerates the process extension. We discuss implications of the model for the general problems of cell polarization, cytoskeletal polarity emergence, and cell process protrusion.
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