Cells are quintessential examples of out-of-equilibrium systems, but they maintain a homeostatic state over a timescale of hours to days. As a consequence, the statistics of all observables is remarkably consistent. Here, we develop a statistical mechanics framework for living cells by including the homeostatic constraint that exists over the interphase period of the cell cycle. The consequence is the introduction of the concept of a homeostatic ensemble and an associated homeostatic temperature, along with a formalism for the (dynamic) homeostatic equilibrium that intervenes to allow living cells to evade thermodynamic decay. As a first application, the framework is shown to accurately predict the observed effect of the mechanical environment on the in vitro response of smooth muscle cells. This includes predictions that both the mean values and diversity/variability in the measured values of observables such as cell area, shape and tractions decrease with decreasing stiffness of the environment. Thus, we argue that the observed variabilities are inherent to the entropic nature of the homeostatic equilibrium of cells and not a result of in vitro experimental errors.
Keywords: Cell; Cytoskeleton; Effective temperature; Fluctuations; Statistical mechanics.