Motile fibroblasts generate forces that can be expressed as cell migration or as traction, the drawing-in of extracellular matrix. Traction by cultured fibroblasts can induce a rapid concerted reorganization of collagen gel, creating a pattern of collagen alignment similar to that seen in tendons and ligaments. In such fibrous connective tissues, after pattern morphogenesis is complete, ongoing traction may be responsible for the maintenance of proper form and function. The molecules that generate and transmit forces have been catalogued; however, how these nanometer-scale molecules contribute to millimeter-scale patterns has not been directly tested. Here, we placed pairs of explants of human periodontal ligament fibroblasts in collagen gels, where ligament-like straps of anisotropic collagen formed on the axes between them. We scrutinized the traction apparatus using electron microscopy, video microscopy, and computer-based pattern analysis, augmented with pharmacologic inhibitors of cytoskeletal function. Patterning was marked by the co-alignment of collagen, fibroblasts, and their actin cytoskeletons, all parallel to the axis between explants. The pattern was diminished by depolymerizing actin filaments or by blocking myosin activity, but was accentuated by depolymerizing microtubules. The plasma membrane also seems to contribute to the traction force. These molecular components combine to exert a sub-maximal traction force on the matrix, suggesting that the force may be regulated to ensure tissue tensional homeostasis.
Copyright 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.