Here we describe a method for quantifying traction in cells that are physically constrained within micron-sized adhesive islands of defined shape and size on the surface of flexible polyacrylamide gels that contain fluorescent microbeads (0.2-microm diameter). Smooth muscle cells were plated onto square (50 x 50 microm) or circular (25- or 50-microm diameter) adhesive islands that were created on the surface of the gels by applying a collagen coating through microengineered holes in an elastomeric membrane that was later removed. Adherent cells spread to take on the size and shape of the islands and cell tractions were quantitated by mapping displacement fields of the fluorescent microbeads within the gel. Cells on round islands did not exhibit any preferential direction of force application, but they exerted their strongest traction at sites where they formed protrusions. When cells were confined to squares, traction was highest in the corners both in the absence and presence of the contractile agonist, histamine, and cell protrusions were also observed in these regions. Quantitation of the mean traction exerted by cells cultured on the different islands revealed that cell tension increased as cell spreading was promoted. These results provide a mechanical basis for past studies that demonstrated a similar correlation between spreading and growth within various anchorage-dependent cells. This new approach for analyzing the spatial distribution of mechanical forces beneath individual cells that are experimentally constrained to defined sizes and shapes may provide additional insight into the biophysical basis of cell regulation.
Copyright 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.