Cells generate mechanical stresses via the action of myosin motors on the actin cytoskeleton. Although the molecular origin of force generation is well understood, we currently lack an understanding of the regulation of force transmission at cellular length scales. Here, using 3T3 fibroblasts, we experimentally decouple the effects of substrate stiffness, focal adhesion density, and cell morphology to show that the total amount of work a cell does against the substrate to which it is adhered is regulated by the cell spread area alone. Surprisingly, the number of focal adhesions and the substrate stiffness have little effect on regulating the work done on the substrate by the cell. For a given spread area, the local curvature along the cell edge regulates the distribution and magnitude of traction stresses to maintain a constant strain energy. A physical model of the adherent cell as a contractile gel under a uniform boundary tension and mechanically coupled to an elastic substrate quantitatively captures the spatial distribution and magnitude of traction stresses. With a single choice of parameters, this model accurately predicts the cell's mechanical output over a wide range of cell geometries.
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