Focal adhesions (FAs) are the predominant mechanism by which cells mechanically couple to and exert traction forces on their extracellular matrix (ECM). It is widely presumed that FA size is modulated by force to mediate changes in adhesion strength at different levels of cellular tension. However, previous studies seeking correlations between force and FA morphology have yielded variable and often conflicting results. Here we show that a strong correlation between adhesion size and traction force exists only during the initial stages of myosin-mediated adhesion maturation and growth. For mature adhesions, no correlation between traction stress and size is observed. Rather, the tension that is sustained at mature adhesions is more strongly influenced by proximity to the cell edge, with peripheral adhesions transmitting higher tension than adhesions near the cell center. Finally, we show that mature adhesions can withstand sixfold increases in tension without changes in size. Thus, although a strong correlation between adhesion size and mechanical tension is observed during the initial stages of myosin-mediated adhesion maturation, no correlation is observed in mature, elongated adhesions. This work places spatiotemporal constraints on the force-dependent growth of adhesions and provides insight into the mechanical regulation of cell-ECM adhesion.
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