Blebs promote cell survival by assembling oncogenic signalling hubs

Andrew D. Weems, Erik Welf, Meghan K. Driscoll, Felix Y. Zhou, Hanieh Mazloom-Farsibaf, Bo Jui Chang, Vasanth S. Murali, Gabriel M. Gihana, Byron G. Weiss, Joseph Chi, Divya Rajendran, Kevin Dean, Reto P Fiolka, Gaudenz Danuser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most human cells require anchorage for survival. Cell–substrate adhesion activates diverse signalling pathways, without which cells undergo anoikis—a form of programmed cell death1. Acquisition of anoikis resistance is a pivotal step in cancer disease progression, as metastasizing cells often lose firm attachment to surrounding tissue2,3. In these poorly attached states, cells adopt rounded morphologies and form small hemispherical plasma membrane protrusions called blebs4–11. Bleb function has been thoroughly investigated in the context of amoeboid migration, but it has been examined far less in other scenarios12. Here we show by three-dimensional imaging and manipulation of cell morphological states that blebbing triggers the formation of plasma membrane-proximal signalling hubs that confer anoikis resistance. Specifically, in melanoma cells, blebbing generates plasma membrane contours that recruit curvature-sensing septin proteins as scaffolds for constitutively active mutant NRAS and effectors. These signalling hubs activate ERK and PI3K—well-established promoters of pro-survival pathways. Inhibition of blebs or septins has little effect on the survival of well-adhered cells, but in detached cells it causes NRAS mislocalization, reduced MAPK and PI3K activity, and ultimately, death. This unveils a morphological requirement for mutant NRAS to operate as an effective oncoprotein. Furthermore, whereas some BRAF-mutated melanoma cells do not rely on this survival pathway in a basal state, inhibition of BRAF and MEK strongly sensitizes them to both bleb and septin inhibition. Moreover, fibroblasts engineered to sustain blebbing acquire the same anoikis resistance as cancer cells even without harbouring oncogenic mutations. Thus, blebs are potent signalling organelles capable of integrating myriad cellular information flows into concerted cellular responses, in this case granting robust anoikis resistance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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