Substrate Stiffness and Cell Area Predict Cellular Traction Stresses in Single Cells and Cells in Contact

Cell Mol Bioeng. 2010 Mar 1;3(1):68-75. doi: 10.1007/s12195-010-0102-6.


Cells generate traction stresses against their substrate during adhesion and migration, and traction stresses are used in part by the cell to sense the substrate. While it is clear that traction stresses, substrate stiffness, and cell area are related, it is unclear whether or how area and substrate stiffness affect force generation in cells. Moreover, multiple studies have investigated traction stresses of single cells, but few have focused on forces exerted by cells in contact, which more closely mimics the in vivo environment. Here, cellular traction forces were measured where cell area was modulated by ligand density or substrate stiffness. We coupled these measurements with a multilinear regression model to show that both projected cell area and underlying substrate stiffness are significant predictors of traction forces in endothelial cells, and interestingly, substrate ligand density is not. We further explored the effect of cell-cell contact on the interplay between cell area, substrate stiffness, and force generation and found that again both area and stiffness play a significant role in cell force generation. These data indicate that cellular traction force cannot be determined by cell area alone and that underlying substrate stiffness is a significant contributor to traction force generation.