Cells in the body exist in a dynamic mechanical environment where they are subject to mechanical stretch as well as changes in composition and stiffness of the underlying extracellular matrix (ECM). However, the underlying mechanisms by which cells sense and adapt to their dynamic mechanical environment, in particular to stretch, are not well understood. In this study, we hypothesized that emergent phenomena at the level of the actin network arising from active structural rearrangements driven by nonmuscle myosin II molecular motors play a major role in the cellular response to both stretch and changes in ECM stiffness. To test this hypothesis, we introduce a simple network model of actin-myosin interactions that links active self-organization of the actin network to the stiffness of the network and the traction forces generated by the network. We demonstrate that such a network replicates not only the effect of changes in substrate stiffness on cellular traction and stiffness and the dependence of rate of force development by a cell on the stiffness of its substrate, but also explains the physical response of adherent cells to transient and cyclic stretch. Our results provide strong indication that network phenomena governed by the active reorganization of the actin-myosin structure plays an important role in cellular mechanosensing and response to both changes in ECM stiffness and externally applied mechanical stretch.
Keywords: active networks; cortical actin network; fluidization; mechanotransduction.