Investigating the interplay between substrate stiffness and ligand chemistry in directing mesenchymal stem cell differentiation within 3D macro-porous substrates

Biomaterials. 2018 Jul;171:23-33. doi: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2018.04.026. Epub 2018 Apr 16.


Dimensionality can have a profound impact on stiffness-mediated differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). However, while we have begun to understand cellular response when encapsulated within 3D substrates, the behavior of cells within macro-porous substrates is relatively underexplored. The goal of this study was to determine the influence of macro-porous topographies on stiffness-mediated differentiation of MSCs. We developed macro-porous recombinant elastin-like protein (ELP) substrates that allow independent control of mechanical properties and ligand chemistry. We then used computational modeling to probe the impact of pore topography on the mechanical stimulus that cells are exposed to within these substrates, and finally we investigated stiffness induced biases towards adipogenic and osteogenic differentiation of MSCs within macro-porous substrates. Computational modeling revealed that there is significant heterogeneity in the mechanical stimuli that cells are exposed to within porous substrates and that this heterogeneity is predominantly due to the wide range of possible cellular orientations within the pores. Surprisingly, MSCs grown within 3D porous substrates respond to increasing substrate stiffness by up-regulating both osteogenesis and adipogenesis. These results demonstrate that within porous substrates the behavior of MSCs diverges from previously observed responses to substrate stiffness, emphasizing the importance of topography as a determinant of cellular behavior.

Keywords: Cell-matrix interactions; Differentiation; Macro-porosity; Mechanotransduction; Mesenchymal stem cells; Substrate stiffness; Tissue engineering.

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

  • Alkaline Phosphatase / metabolism
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • DNA / metabolism
  • Elastin / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Models, Molecular
  • Porosity
  • Substrate Specificity
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Ligands
  • Triglycerides
  • DNA
  • Elastin
  • Alkaline Phosphatase