The microscopic environment inside a metazoan organism is highly crowded. Whether individual cells can tailor their behavior to the limited space remains unclear. In this study, we found that cells measure the degree of spatial confinement by using their largest and stiffest organelle, the nucleus. Cell confinement below a resting nucleus size deforms the nucleus, which expands and stretches its envelope. This activates signaling to the actomyosin cortex via nuclear envelope stretch-sensitive proteins, up-regulating cell contractility. We established that the tailored contractile response constitutes a nuclear ruler-based signaling pathway involved in migratory cell behaviors. Cells rely on the nuclear ruler to modulate the motive force that enables their passage through restrictive pores in complex three-dimensional environments, a process relevant to cancer cell invasion, immune responses, and embryonic development.
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