We describe a multiscale model that incorporates force-dependent mechanical plasticity induced by interfiber cross-link breakage and stiffness-dependent cellular contractility to predict focal adhesion (FA) growth and mechanosensing in fibrous extracellular matrices (ECMs). The model predicts that FA size depends on both the stiffness of ECM and the density of ligands available to form adhesions. Although these two quantities are independent in commonly used hydrogels, contractile cells break cross-links in soft fibrous matrices leading to recruitment of fibers, which increases the ligand density in the vicinity of cells. Consequently, although the size of focal adhesions increases with ECM stiffness in nonfibrous and elastic hydrogels, plasticity of fibrous networks leads to a departure from the well-described positive correlation between stiffness and FA size. We predict a phase diagram that describes nonmonotonic behavior of FA in the space spanned by ECM stiffness and recruitment index, which describes the ability of cells to break cross-links and recruit fibers. The predicted decrease in FA size with increasing ECM stiffness is in excellent agreement with recent observations of cell spreading on electrospun fiber networks with tunable cross-link strengths and mechanics. Our model provides a framework to analyze cell mechanosensing in nonlinear and inelastic ECMs.
Keywords: Rho pathway; cell contractility; focal adhesion; matrix physical remodeling; mechanosensing.