Molecular Tension Sensors Report Forces Generated by Single Integrin Molecules in Living Cells

Nano Lett. 2013 Sep 11;13(9):3985-9. doi: 10.1021/nl4005145. Epub 2013 Aug 28.


Living cells are exquisitely responsive to mechanical cues, yet how cells produce and detect mechanical force remains poorly understood due to a lack of methods that visualize cell-generated forces at the molecular scale. Here we describe Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET)-based molecular tension sensors that allow us to directly visualize cell-generated forces with single-molecule sensitivity. We apply these sensors to determine the distribution of forces generated by individual integrins, a class of cell adhesion molecules with prominent roles throughout cell and developmental biology. We observe strikingly complex distributions of tensions within individual focal adhesions. FRET values measured for single probe molecules suggest that relatively modest tensions at the molecular level are sufficient to drive robust cellular adhesion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biosensing Techniques*
  • Cytoskeleton / chemistry
  • Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer / methods
  • Focal Adhesions / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Integrins / chemistry*
  • Microscopy / methods
  • Nanotechnology
  • Stress, Mechanical*


  • Integrins