Cellular forces generated by the actomyosin cytoskeleton and transmitted to the extracellular matrix (ECM) through discrete, integrin-based protein assemblies, that is, focal adhesions, are critical to developmental morphogenesis and tissue homeostasis, as well as disease progression in cancer. However, quantitative mapping of these forces has been difficult since there has been no experimental technique to visualize nanonewton forces at submicrometer spatial resolution. Here, we provide detailed protocols for measuring cellular forces exerted on two-dimensional elastic substrates with a high-resolution traction force microscopy (TFM) method. We describe fabrication of polyacrylamide substrates labeled with multiple colors of fiducial markers, functionalization of the substrates with ECM proteins, setting up the experiment, and imaging procedures. In addition, we provide the theoretical background of traction reconstruction and experimental considerations important to design a high-resolution TFM experiment. We describe the implementation of a new algorithm for processing of images of fiducial markers that are taken below the surface of the substrate, which significantly improves data quality. We demonstrate the application of the algorithm and explain how to choose a regularization parameter for suppression of the measurement error. A brief discussion of different ways to visualize and analyze the results serves to illustrate possible uses of high-resolution TFM in biomedical research.
Keywords: Elastic modulus; Focal adhesions; Fourier transform traction cytometry; High-resolution traction force microscopy; Mechanotransduction; Polyacrylamide gel; Stiffness.
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