In vivo quantification of spatially varying mechanical properties in developing tissues

Nat Methods. 2017 Feb;14(2):181-186. doi: 10.1038/nmeth.4101. Epub 2016 Dec 5.


The mechanical properties of the cellular microenvironment and their spatiotemporal variations are thought to play a central role in sculpting embryonic tissues, maintaining organ architecture and controlling cell behavior, including cell differentiation. However, no direct in vivo and in situ measurement of mechanical properties within developing 3D tissues and organs has yet been performed. Here we introduce a technique that employs biocompatible, magnetically responsive ferrofluid microdroplets as local mechanical actuators and allows quantitative spatiotemporal measurements of mechanical properties in vivo. Using this technique, we show that vertebrate body elongation entails spatially varying tissue mechanics along the anteroposterior axis. Specifically, we find that the zebrafish tailbud is viscoelastic (elastic below a few seconds and fluid after just 1 min) and displays decreasing stiffness and increasing fluidity toward its posterior elongating region. This method opens new avenues to study mechanobiology in vivo, both in embryogenesis and in disease processes, including cancer.

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

  • Acrylic Resins / chemistry
  • Animals
  • Biocompatible Materials / chemistry*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena*
  • Biophysics / instrumentation
  • Biophysics / methods*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian
  • Equipment Design
  • Magnetic Fields
  • Microscopy, Confocal / methods
  • Tail / embryology
  • Viscosity
  • Zebrafish / embryology*


  • Acrylic Resins
  • Biocompatible Materials
  • polyacrylamide gels