eCM (Eur Cell Mater / e Cells & Materials) Not-for-Profit Open Access
Created by Scientists, for Scientists
 ISSN:1473-2262         NLM:100973416 (link)         DOI:10.22203/eCM

2011   Volume No 22 – pages 202-213

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

Author: G De Santis, AB Lennon, F Boschetti, B Verhegghe, P Verdonck, PJ Prendergast

Address: Institute Biomedical Technology (IBiTech), Ghent University, De Pintelaan 185, Block B, BE-9000 Gent, Belgium

E-mail: gianluca.desantis at

Key Words: Biophysical model, tensegrity, matrix elasticity, Finite Element Method, analytical model, mesenchymal stem cells.

Publication date: October 11th 2011

Abstract: 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.

Article download: Pages 202-213 (PDF file)
DOI: 10.22203/eCM.v022a16