Differential cell adhesion and cortex tension are thought to drive cell sorting by controlling cell-cell contact formation. Here, we show that cell adhesion and cortex tension have different mechanical functions in controlling progenitor cell-cell contact formation and sorting during zebrafish gastrulation. Cortex tension controls cell-cell contact expansion by modulating interfacial tension at the contact. By contrast, adhesion has little direct function in contact expansion, but instead is needed to mechanically couple the cortices of adhering cells at their contacts, allowing cortex tension to control contact expansion. The coupling function of adhesion is mediated by E-cadherin and limited by the mechanical anchoring of E-cadherin to the cortex. Thus, cell adhesion provides the mechanical scaffold for cell cortex tension to drive cell sorting during gastrulation.
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