Improved throughput traction microscopy reveals pivotal role for matrix stiffness in fibroblast contractility and TGF-β responsiveness

Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol. 2012 Aug 1;303(3):L169-80. doi: 10.1152/ajplung.00108.2012. Epub 2012 Jun 1.


Lung fibroblast functions such as matrix remodeling and activation of latent transforming growth factor-β1 (TGF-β1) are associated with expression of the myofibroblast phenotype and are directly linked to fibroblast capacity to generate force and deform the extracellular matrix. However, the study of fibroblast force-generating capacities through methods such as traction force microscopy is hindered by low throughput and time-consuming procedures. In this study, we improved at the detail level methods for higher-throughput traction measurements on polyacrylamide hydrogels using gel-surface-bound fluorescent beads to permit autofocusing and automated displacement mapping, and transduction of fibroblasts with a fluorescent label to streamline cell boundary identification. Together these advances substantially improve the throughput of traction microscopy and allow us to efficiently compute the forces exerted by lung fibroblasts on substrates spanning the stiffness range present in normal and fibrotic lung tissue. Our results reveal that lung fibroblasts dramatically alter the forces they transmit to the extracellular matrix as its stiffness changes, with very low forces generated on matrices as compliant as normal lung tissue. Moreover, exogenous TGF-β1 selectively accentuates tractions on stiff matrices, mimicking fibrotic lung, but not on physiological stiffness matrices, despite equivalent changes in Smad2/3 activation. Taken together, these results demonstrate a pivotal role for matrix mechanical properties in regulating baseline and TGF-β1-stimulated contraction of lung fibroblasts and suggest that stiff fibrotic lung tissue may promote myofibroblast activation through contractility-driven events, whereas normal lung tissue compliance may protect against such feedback amplification of fibroblast activation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cells, Cultured
  • Extracellular Matrix / pathology*
  • Fetus / cytology
  • Fetus / metabolism
  • Fibroblasts / cytology*
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Humans
  • Lung / cytology*
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Microscopy
  • Phosphorylation
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis / metabolism
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis / pathology*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Smad2 Protein / metabolism
  • Smad3 Protein / metabolism
  • Traction
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / metabolism*


  • SMAD2 protein, human
  • Smad2 Protein
  • Smad3 Protein
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta