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  1. Stiffness and forces are two fundamental quantities essential to living cells and tissues. However, it has been a challenge to quantify both 3D traction forces and stiffness (or modulus) using the same probe in vivo. Here, we describe an approach that overcomes this challenge by creating a magnetic microrobot probe with controllable functionality. Biocompatible ferromagnetic cobalt-platinum microcrosses were fabricated, and each microcross (about 30 micrometers) was trapped inside an arginine–glycine–aspartic acid–conjugated stiff poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) round microgel (about 50 micrometers) using a microfluidic device. The stiff magnetic microrobot was seeded inside a cell colony and acted as a stiffness probe by rigidly rotating in response to an oscillatory magnetic field. Then, brief episodes of ultraviolet light exposure were applied to dynamically photodegrade and soften the fluorescent nanoparticle–embedded PEG microgel, whose deformation and 3D traction forces were quantified. Using the microrobot probe, we show that malignant tumor–repopulating cell colonies altered their modulus but not traction forces in response to different 3D substrate elasticities. Stiffness and 3D traction forces were measured, and both normal and shear traction force oscillations were observed in zebrafish embryos from blastula to gastrula. Mouse embryos generated larger tensile and compressive traction force oscillations than shear traction force oscillations during blastocyst. The microrobot probe with controllable functionality via magnetic fields could potentially be useful for studying the mechanoregulation of cells, tissues, and embryos.

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