Epithelial tissues (epithelia) remove excess cells through extrusion, preventing the accumulation of unnecessary or pathological cells. The extrusion process can be triggered by apoptotic signalling1, oncogenic transformation2,3 and overcrowding of cells4,5,6. Despite the important linkage of cell extrusion to developmental7, homeostatic5 and pathological processes2,8 such as cancer metastasis, its underlying mechanism and connections to the intrinsic mechanics of the epithelium are largely unexplored. We approach this problem by modelling the epithelium as an active nematic liquid crystal (that has a long range directional order), and comparing numerical simulations to strain rate and stress measurements within monolayers of MDCK (Madin Darby canine kidney) cells. Here we show that apoptotic cell extrusion is provoked by singularities in cell alignments9,10 in the form of comet-shaped topological defects. We find a universal correlation between extrusion sites and positions of nematic defects in the cell orientation field in different epithelium types. The results confirm the active nematic nature of epithelia, and demonstrate that defect-induced isotropic stresses are the primary precursors of mechanotransductive responses in cells, including YAP (Yes-associated protein) transcription factor activity11, caspase-3-mediated cell death, and extrusions. Importantly, the defect-driven extrusion mechanism depends on intercellular junctions, because the weakening of cell-cell interactions in an α-catenin knockdown monolayer reduces the defect size and increases both the number of defects and extrusion rates, as is also predicted by our model. We further demonstrate the ability to control extrusion hotspots by geometrically inducing defects through microcontact printing of patterned monolayers. On the basis of these results, we propose a mechanism for apoptotic cell extrusion: spontaneously formed topological defects in epithelia govern cell fate. This will be important in predicting extrusion hotspots and dynamics in vivo, with potential applications to tissue regeneration and the suppression of metastasis. Moreover, we anticipate that the analogy between the epithelium and active nematic liquid crystals will trigger further investigations of the link between cellular processes and the material properties of epithelia.
By modelling epithelial cells as active nematic liquid crystals, stresses induced at the sites of topological defects are found to be the primary drivers of extrusion and cell death.