The cortex is a thin, crosslinked actin network lying immediately beneath the plasma membrane of animal cells. Myosin motors exert contractile forces in the meshwork. Because the cortex is attached to the cell membrane, it plays a central role in cell shape control. The proteic constituents of the cortex undergo rapid turnover, making the cortex both mechanically rigid and highly plastic, two properties essential to its function. The cortex has recently attracted increasing attention and its functions in cellular processes such as cytokinesis, cell migration, and embryogenesis are progressively being dissected. In this review, we summarize current knowledge on the structural organization, composition, and mechanics of the actin cortex, focusing on the link between molecular processes and macroscopic physical properties. We also highlight consequences of cortex dysfunction in disease.
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