Spontaneous shear flow in confined cellular nematics

In embryonic development or tumor evolution, cells often migrate collectively within confining tracks defined by their microenvironment 1,2. In some of these situations, the displacements within a cell strand are antiparallel 3, giving rise to shear flows. However, the mechanisms underlying these spontaneous flows remain poorly understood. Here, we show that an ensemble of spindle-shaped cells plated in a well-defined stripe spontaneously develop a shear flow whose characteristics depend on the width of the stripe. On wide stripes, the cells self-organize in a nematic phase with a director at a well-defined angle with the stripe's direction, and develop a shear flow close to the stripe's edges. However, on stripes narrower than a critical width, the cells perfectly align with the stripe's direction and the net flow vanishes. A hydrodynamic active gel theory provides an understanding of these observations and identifies the transition between the non-flowing phase oriented along the stripe and the tilted phase exhibiting shear flow as a Fréedericksz transition driven by the activity of the cells. This physical theory is grounded in the active nature of the cells and based on symmetries and conservation laws, providing a generic mechanism to interpret in vivo antiparallel cell displacements.