Traction fields, moments, and strain energy that cells exert on their surroundings

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2002 Mar;282(3):C595-605. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00270.2001.


Adherent cells exert tractions on their surroundings. These tractions can be measured by observing the displacements of beads embedded on a flexible gel substrate on which the cells are cultured. This paper presents an exact solution to the problem of computing the traction field from the observed displacement field. The solution rests on recasting the relationship between displacements and tractions into Fourier space, where the recovery of the traction field is especially simple. We present two subcases of the solution, depending on whether or not tractions outside the observed cell boundaries are set to be zero. The implementation is computationally efficient. We also give the solution for the traction field in a representative human airway smooth muscle cell contracted by treatment with histamine. Finally, we give explicit formulas for reducing the traction and displacement fields to contraction moments, the orientation of the principal axes of traction, and the strain energy imparted by the cell to the substrate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acrylic Resins / chemistry
  • Cell Adhesion / physiology*
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Culture Media, Serum-Free
  • Fourier Analysis*
  • Histamine / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Mathematics
  • Microspheres
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscle, Smooth / cytology
  • Muscle, Smooth / drug effects
  • Muscle, Smooth / metabolism
  • Stress, Mechanical*


  • Acrylic Resins
  • Culture Media, Serum-Free
  • polyacrylamide gels
  • Histamine