The effect of differentiation on the transverse mechanical properties of mammalian myocytes was determined by using atomic force microscopy. The apparent elastic modulus increased from 11.5 +/- 1.3 kPa for undifferentiated myoblasts to 45.3 +/- 4.0 kPa after 8 days of differentiation (P < 0.05). The relative contribution of viscosity, as determined from the normalized hysteresis area, ranged from 0.13 +/- 0.02 to 0.21 +/- 0.03 and did not change throughout differentiation. Myosin expression correlated with the apparent elastic modulus, but neither myosin nor beta-tubulin were associated with hysteresis. Microtubules did not affect mechanical properties because treatment with colchicine did not alter the apparent elastic modulus or hysteresis. Treatment with cytochalasin D or 2,3-butanedione 2-monoxime led to a significant reduction in the apparent elastic modulus but no change in hysteresis. In summary, skeletal muscle cells exhibited viscoelastic behavior that changed during differentiation, yielding an increase in the transverse elastic modulus. Major contributors to changes in the transverse elastic modulus during differentiation were actin and myosin.