A technique to control the rigidity of surfaces on which cells are grown is published this week in Nature Methods. This will allow for more controlled lab experiments on cellular mechanobiology which is important for understanding how cells sense and respond to mechanical forces from their environment.
In the body, cells do not exist in isolation but are in constant contact with other cells and with the extracellular matrix, which provides structural support as well as both molecular and mechanical signals. There is increasing evidence that for cells in culture as well, the mechanical properties of the surfaces on which they are grown affects cellular shape and function; the study of these effects may lead to an increased understanding of how cells sense the mechanical properties of their environment also in vivo. With current methods, it is not possible to change surface rigidity without also affecting other properties ― such as the amount of active ligand molecules presented to cells ― making it difficult to tease out the precise contributions of rigidity to cellular behaviour.
Christopher Chen and colleagues describe how, for cells grown on arrays of tiny posts one to a few microns high, the heights of the posts determine the rigidity of the growth surface without affecting other properties. Using these arrays, the researchers show that modulating rigidity alone affects several cellular behaviours, including the differentiation of stem cells.