Cells sense mechanical signals within the extracellular matrix, the most familiar being stiffness, but matrix stiffness cannot be simply described by a single value. Randomness in matrix structure causes stiffness at the scale of a cell to vary by more than an order of magnitude. Additionally, the extracellular matrix contains ducts, blood vessels, and, in cancer or fibrosis, regions with abnormally high stiffness. These different features could alter the stiffness sensed by a cell, but it is unclear whether the change in stiffness is large enough to overcome the noise caused by heterogeneity due to the random fibrous structure. Here we used a combination of experiments and modeling to determine the extent to which matrix heterogeneity disrupts the potential for cell sensing of a locally stiff feature in the matrix. Results showed that, at the scale of a single cell, spatial heterogeneity in local stiffness was larger than the increase in stiffness due to a stiff feature. The heterogeneity was reduced only for large length scales compared to the fiber length. Experiments verified this conclusion, showing spheroids of cells, which were large compared to the average fiber length, spreading preferentially toward stiff inclusions. Hence, the propagation of mechanical cues throughmore »
Modulus of Fibrous Collagen at the Length Scale of a Cell
The extracellular matrix provides macroscale structural support to tissues as well as microscale mechanical cues, like stiffness, to the resident cells. As those cues modulate gene expression, proliferation, differentiation, and motility, quantifying the stiffness that cells sense is crucial to understanding cell behavior. Whereas the macroscopic modulus of a collagen network can be measured in uniform extension or shear, quantifying the local stiffness sensed by a cell remains a challenge due to the inhomogeneous and nonlinear nature of the fiber network at the scale of the cell. To address this challenge, we designed an experimental method to measure the modulus of a network of collagen fibers at this scale. We used spherical particles of an active hydrogel (poly N-isopropylacrylamide) that contract when heated, thereby applying local forces to the collagen matrix and mimicking the contractile forces of a cell. After measuring the particles’ bulk modulus and contraction in networks of collagen fibers, we applied a nonlinear model for fibrous materials to compute the modulus of the local region surrounding each particle. We found the modulus at this length scale to be highly heterogeneous, with modulus varying by a factor of 3. In addition, at different values of applied strain, we more »
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- Experimental Mechanics
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