Tissue cells feel and respond to the stiffness of their substrate

Dennis E DischerYu-Li Wang


Normal tissue cells are generally not viable when suspended in a fluid and are therefore said to be anchorage dependent. Such cells must adhere to a solid, but a solid can be as rigid as glass or softer than a baby's skin. The behavior of some cells on soft materials is characteristic of important phenotypes; for example, cell growth on soft agar gels is used to identify cancer cells. However, an understanding of how tissue cells-including fibroblasts, myocytes, neurons, and other cell types-sense matrix stiffness is just emerging with quantitative studies of cells adhering to gels (or to other cells) with which elasticity can be tuned to approximate that of tissues. Key roles in molecular pathways are played by adhesion complexes and the actinmyosin cytoskeleton, whose contractile forces are transmitted through transcellular structures. The feedback of local matrix stiffness on cell state likely has important implications for development, differentiation, disease, and regeneration.


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