Biophysical subsets of embryonic stem cells display distinct phenotypic and morphological signatures

PLoS One. 2018 Mar 8;13(3):e0192631. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192631. eCollection 2018.


The highly proliferative and pluripotent characteristics of embryonic stem cells engender great promise for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, but the rapid identification and isolation of target cell phenotypes remains challenging. Therefore, the objectives of this study were to characterize cell mechanics as a function of differentiation and to employ differences in cell stiffness to select population subsets with distinct mechanical, morphological, and biological properties. Biomechanical analysis with atomic force microscopy revealed that embryonic stem cells stiffened within one day of differentiation induced by leukemia inhibitory factor removal, with a lagging but pronounced change from spherical to spindle-shaped cell morphology. A microfluidic device was then employed to sort a differentially labeled mixture of pluripotent and differentiating cells based on stiffness, resulting in pluripotent cell enrichment in the soft device outlet. Furthermore, sorting an unlabeled population of partially differentiated cells produced a subset of "soft" cells that was enriched for the pluripotent phenotype, as assessed by post-sort characterization of cell mechanics, morphology, and gene expression. The results of this study indicate that intrinsic cell mechanical properties might serve as a basis for efficient, high-throughput, and label-free isolation of pluripotent stem cells, which will facilitate a greater biological understanding of pluripotency and advance the potential of pluripotent stem cell differentiated progeny as cell sources for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Lineage / genetics
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Fibroblasts / cytology*
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Gene Expression
  • Mice
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force
  • Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Phenotype
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Time Factors