Spatial patterning of biochemical cues on the micro- and nanometer scale controls numerous cellular processes such as spreading, adhesion, migration, and proliferation. Using force microscopy we show that the lateral spacing of individual integrin receptor-ligand bonds determines the strength of cell adhesion. For spacings > or = 90 nm, focal contact formation was inhibited and the detachment forces as well as the stiffness of the cell body were significantly decreased compared to spacings < or = 50 nm. Analyzing cell detachment at the subcellular level revealed that rupture forces of focal contacts increase with loading rate as predicted by a theoretical model for adhesion clusters. Furthermore, we show that the weak link between the intra- and extracellular space is at the intracellular side of a focal contact. Our results show that cells can amplify small differences in adhesive cues to large differences in cell adhesion strength.
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