Cadherins are essential cell adhesion molecules involved in tissue morphogenesis and the maintenance of tissue architecture in adults. The adhesion and selectivity functions of cadherins are located in their extracellular regions. Biophysical studies show that the adhesive activity is not confined to a single interface. Instead, multiple cadherin domains contribute to binding. By contrast, the specificity-determining site maps to the N-terminal domains, which adhere by the reciprocal binding of Trp2 residues from opposing proteins. Structural cooperativity can transmit the effects of subtle structural changes or ligand binding over large distances in the protein. Increasingly, studies show that differential cadherin-mediated adhesion, rather than exclusive homophilic binding between identical cadherins, direct cell segregation and the organization of tissue interfaces during morphogenesis. Force measurements quantified both kinetic and strength differences between different classical cadherins that may underlie cell sorting behavior. Despite the complex adhesion mechanisms and differences in binding properties, cadherin-mediated cell adhesion is also regulated by many other biochemical processes. Elucidating the mechanisms by which cadherins organize cell junctions and tissue architecture requires not only quantitative, mechanistic investigations of cadherin function but also investigations of the biochemical and cellular processes that can modulate those functions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)259-287
Number of pages29
JournalAnnual Review of Biomedical Engineering
StatePublished - Sep 7 2006


  • Cell adhesion
  • Cell sorting
  • Differential adhesion
  • Molecular force measurements
  • Morphogenesis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biomedical Engineering


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