Coin Tossing Explains the Activity of Opposing Microtubule Motors on Phagosomes

Paulomi Sanghavi, Ashwin D'Souza, Ashim Rai, Arpan Rai, Ranjith Padinhatheeri, Roop Mallik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


How the opposing activity of kinesin and dynein motors generates polarized distribution of organelles inside cells is poorly understood and hotly debated [1, 2]. Possible explanations include stochastic mechanical competition [3, 4], coordinated regulation by motor-associated proteins [5–7], mechanical activation of motors [8], and lipid-induced organization [9]. Here, we address this question by using phagocytosed latex beads to generate early phagosomes (EPs) that move bidirectionally along microtubules (MTs) in an in vitro assay [9]. Dynein/kinesin activity on individual EPs is recorded as real-time force generation of the motors against an optical trap. Activity of one class of motors frequently coincides with, or is rapidly followed by opposite motors. This leads to frequent and rapid reversals of EPs in the trap. Remarkably, the choice between dynein and kinesin can be explained by the tossing of a coin. Opposing motors therefore appear to function stochastically and independently of each other, as also confirmed by observing no effect on kinesin function when dynein is inhibited on the EPs. A simple binomial probability calculation based on the geometry of EP-microtubule contact explains the observed activity of dynein and kinesin on phagosomes. This understanding of intracellular transport in terms of a hypothetical coin, if it holds true for other cargoes, provides a conceptual framework to explain the polarized localization of organelles inside cells. Sanghavi et al. analyze optical trapping data on phagosomes to propose that sub-cellular localization of organelles inside cells can be understood in terms of a hypothetical coin toss that decides motor protein activity (dynein versus kinesin) on the phagosome.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1460-1466.e4
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 7 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
R.M. acknowledges funding from a Wellcome Trust International Senior Research Fellowship (grant WT079214MA ) and a senior fellowship from the Wellcome Trust – Department of Biotechnology India alliance (grant IA/S/11/2500255 ). P.S. acknowledges funding from the Wellcome Trust – Department of Biotechnology India alliance as an Early Career Fellowship (grant IA/E/15/1/502298 ). We thank R. Jha, R. Elangovan, A. Dubey, D. Pathak, S. Thakur, V. Soppina, and P. Rathaur for help with experiments and discussions.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s)


  • Markov process
  • bidirectional transport
  • dynein
  • intracellular transport
  • kinesin
  • optical trapping
  • phagocytosis
  • vesicle transport


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