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  1. Cells can sense and respond to mechanical forces in fibrous extracellular matrices (ECMs) over distances much greater than their size. This phenomenon, termed long-range force transmission, is enabled by the realignment (buckling) of collagen fibers along directions where the forces are tensile (compressive). However, whether other key structural components of the ECM, in particular glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), can affect the efficiency of cellular force transmission remains unclear. Here we developed a theoretical model of force transmission in collagen networks with interpenetrating GAGs, capturing the competition between tension-driven collagen fiber alignment and the swelling pressure induced by GAGs. Using this model, we show that the swelling pressure provided by GAGs increases the stiffness of the collagen network by stretching the fibers in an isotropic manner. We found that the GAG-induced swelling pressure can help collagen fibers resist buckling as the cells exert contractile forces. This mechanism impedes the alignment of collagen fibers and decreases long-range cellular mechanical communication. We experimentally validated the theoretical predictions by comparing the intensity of collagen fiber alignment between cellular spheroids cultured on collagen gels versus collagen–GAG cogels. We found significantly lower intensities of aligned collagen in collagen–GAG cogels, consistent with the prediction that GAGs can prevent collagenmore »fiber alignment. The role of GAGs in modulating force transmission uncovered in this work can be extended to understand pathological processes such as the formation of fibrotic scars and cancer metastasis, where cells communicate in the presence of abnormally high concentrations of GAGs.« less
  2. While cells within tissues generate and sense 3D states of strain, the current understanding of the mechanics of fibrous extracellular matrices (ECMs) stems mainly from uniaxial, biaxial, and shear tests. Here, we demonstrate that the multiaxial deformations of fiber networks in 3D cannot be inferred solely based on these tests. The interdependence of the three principal strains gives rise to anomalous ratios of biaxial to uniaxial stiffness between 8 and 9 and apparent Poisson’s ratios larger than 1. These observations are explained using a microstructural network model and a coarse-grained constitutive framework that predicts the network Poisson effect and stress–strain responses in uniaxial, biaxial, and triaxial modes of deformation as a function of the microstructural properties of the network, including fiber mechanics and pore size of the network. Using this theoretical approach, we found that accounting for the Poisson effect leads to a 100-fold increase in the perceived elastic stiffness of thin collagen samples in extension tests, reconciling the seemingly disparate measurements of the stiffness of collagen networks using different methods. We applied our framework to study the formation of fiber tracts induced by cellular forces. In vitro experiments with low-density networks showed that the anomalous Poisson effect facilitates highermore »densification of fibrous tracts, associated with the invasion of cancerous acinar cells. The approach developed here can be used to model the evolving mechanics of ECM during cancer invasion and fibrosis.

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  3. Abstract

    The extracellular matrix (ECM) is the primary biomechanical environment that interacts with tendon cells (tenocytes). Stresses applied via muscle contraction during skeletal movement transfer across structural hierarchies to the tenocyte nucleus in native uninjured tendons. Alterations to ECM structural and mechanical properties due to mechanical loading and tissue healing may affect this multiscale strain transfer and stress transmission through the ECM. This study explores the interface between dynamic loading and tendon healing across multiple length scales using living tendon explants. Results show that macroscale mechanical and structural properties are inferior following high magnitude dynamic loading (fatigue) in uninjured living tendon and that these effects propagate to the microscale. Although similar macroscale mechanical effects of dynamic loading are present in healing tendon compared to uninjured tendon, the microscale properties differed greatly during early healing. Regression analysis identified several variables (collagen and nuclear disorganization, cellularity, and F-actin) that directly predict nuclear deformation under loading. Finite element modeling predicted deficits in ECM stress transmission following fatigue loading and during healing. Together, this work identifies the multiscale response of tendon to dynamic loading and healing, and provides new insight into microenvironmental features that tenocytes may experience following injury and after cell delivery therapies.

  4. Abstract

    The extracellular matrix (ECM) has force‐responsive (i.e., mechanochemical) properties that enable adaptation to mechanical loading through changes in fibrous network structure and interfiber bonding. Imparting such properties into synthetic fibrous materials will allow reinforcement under mechanical load, the potential for material self‐adhesion, and the general mimicking of ECM. Multifiber hydrogel networks are developed through the electrospinning of multiple fibrous hydrogel populations, where fibers contain complementary chemical moieties (e.g., aldehyde and hydrazide groups) that form covalent bonds within minutes when brought into contact under mechanical load. These fiber interactions lead to microscale anisotropy, as well as increased material stiffness and plastic deformation. Macroscale structures (e.g., tubes and layered scaffolds) are fabricated from these materials through interfiber bonding and adhesion when placed into contact while maintaining a microscale fibrous architecture. The design principles for engineering plasticity described can be applied to numerous material systems to introduce unique properties, from textiles to biomedical applications.