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, 13 (5), 415-23

Measuring Cell-Generated Forces: A Guide to the Available Tools


Measuring Cell-Generated Forces: A Guide to the Available Tools

William J Polacheck et al. Nat Methods.


Forces generated by cells are critical regulators of cell adhesion, signaling, and function, and they are also essential drivers in the morphogenetic events of development. Over the past 20 years, several methods have been developed to measure these forces. However, despite recent substantial interest in understanding the contribution of these forces in biology, implementation and adoption of the developed methods by the broader biological community remain challenging because of the inherently multidisciplinary expertise required to conduct and interpret the measurements. In this review, we introduce the established methods and highlight the technical challenges associated with implementing each technique in a biological laboratory.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.


ECM mechanical properties determine the relationship between force and deformation. (a) The elasticity, given here as the Young’s modulus (E), determines the relationship between stress and strain in linear materials. In nonlinear materials, E is a function of strain. (b) The ECM is fibrous with anisotropic and nonlinear material properties. (c) Common methods for determining the mechanical properties of materials used to measure cellular forces.
Figure 1
Figure 1
Methods for measuring cellular forces (adapted from refs. . TFM images courtesy of J.J. Fredberg).
Figure 2
Figure 2
Cellular tractions on 2D and in 3D substrates. (a) Traction forces applied by cells induce deformation to the cell substrate and are balanced by reaction stresses within the substrate (not shown for clarity). TFM and micropillar assays measure the component of cellular traction forces acting in the imaging plane (FIn-plane), parallel to the substrate surface. 2.5D TFM enables quantification of the traction components normal to the field of view (FNormal). (b) In 3D ECM, cellular tractions are distributed throughout the 3D space, and traction forces propagated along ECM fibers cause remodeling of the ECM, altering local mechanical properties.

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