A biomimetic gelatin-based platform elicits a pro-differentiation effect on podocytes through mechanotransduction

Sci Rep. 2017 Mar 6:7:43934. doi: 10.1038/srep43934.


Using a gelatin microbial transglutaminase (gelatin-mTG) cell culture platform tuned to exhibit stiffness spanning that of healthy and diseased glomeruli, we demonstrate that kidney podocytes show marked stiffness sensitivity. Podocyte-specific markers that are critical in the formation of the renal filtration barrier are found to be regulated in association with stiffness-mediated cellular behaviors. While podocytes typically de-differentiate in culture and show diminished physiological function in nephropathies characterized by altered tissue stiffness, we show that gelatin-mTG substrates with Young's modulus near that of healthy glomeruli elicit a pro-differentiation and maturation response in podocytes better than substrates either softer or stiffer. The pro-differentiation phenotype is characterized by upregulation of gene and protein expression associated with podocyte function, which is observed for podocytes cultured on gelatin-mTG gels of physiological stiffness independent of extracellular matrix coating type and density. Signaling pathways involved in stiffness-mediated podocyte behaviors are identified, revealing the interdependence of podocyte mechanotransduction and maintenance of their physiological function. This study also highlights the utility of the gelatin-mTG platform as an in vitro system with tunable stiffness over a range relevant for recapitulating mechanical properties of soft tissues, suggesting its potential impact on a wide range of research in cellular biophysics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomimetic Materials / metabolism*
  • Cell Culture Techniques
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Gelatin / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Mechanotransduction, Cellular*
  • Podocytes / drug effects*
  • Podocytes / physiology*
  • Transglutaminases / metabolism*


  • Gelatin
  • Transglutaminases