How can cells sense the elasticity of a substrate? An analysis using a cell tensegrity model.


A eukaryotic cell attaches and spreads on substrates, whether it is the extracellular matrix naturally produced by the cell itself, or artificial materials, such as tissue-engineered scaffolds. Attachment and spreading require the cell to apply forces in the nN range to the substrate via adhesion sites, and these forces are balanced by the elastic response of the substrate. This mechanical interaction is one determinant of cell morphology and, ultimately, cell phenotype. In this paper we use a finite element model of a cell, with a tensegrity structure to model the cytoskeleton of actin filaments and microtubules, to explore the way cells sense the stiffness of the substrate and thereby adapt to it. To support the computational results, an analytical 1D model is developed for comparison. We find that (i) the tensegrity hypothesis of the cytoskeleton is sufficient to explain the matrix-elasticity sensing, (ii) cell sensitivity is not constant but has a bell-shaped distribution over the physiological matrix-elasticity range, and (iii) the position of the sensitivity peak over the matrix-elasticity range depends on the cytoskeletal structure and in particular on the F-actin organisation. Our model suggests that F-actin reorganisation observed in mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in response to change of matrix elasticity is a structural-remodelling process that shifts the sensitivity peak towards the new value of matrix elasticity. This finding discloses a potential regulatory role of scaffold stiffness for cell differentiation.

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@article{Santis2011HowCC, title={How can cells sense the elasticity of a substrate? An analysis using a cell tensegrity model.}, author={Gianluca De Santis and Alexander B Lennon and Federica Boschetti and Benedict Verhegghe and Pascal R. Verdonck and Patrick J. Prendergast}, journal={European cells & materials}, year={2011}, volume={22}, pages={202-13} }