A conformational switch in vinculin drives formation and dynamics of a talin-vinculin complex at focal adhesions.
Focal adhesions (FAs) regulate cell migration. Vinculin, with its many potential binding partners, can interconnect signals in FAs. Despite the well-characterized structure of vinculin, the molecular mechanisms underlying its action have remained unclear. Here, using vinculin mutants, we separate the vinculin head and tail regions into distinct functional domains. We show that the vinculin head regulates integrin dynamics and clustering and the tail regulates the link to the mechanotransduction force machinery. The expression of vinculin constructs with unmasked binding sites in the head and tail regions induces dramatic FA growth, which is mediated by their direct interaction with talin. This interaction leads to clustering of activated integrin and an increase in integrin residency time in FAs. Surprisingly, paxillin recruitment, induced by active vinculin constructs, occurs independently of its potential binding site in the vinculin tail. The vinculin tail, however, is responsible for the functional link of FAs to the actin cytoskeleton. We propose a new model that explains how vinculin orchestrates FAs.