Filament Nucleation Tunes Mechanical Memory in Active Polymer Networks

Adv Funct Mater. 2019 Dec 5;29(49):1905243. doi: 10.1002/adfm.201905243. Epub 2019 Sep 25.


Incorporating growth into contemporary material functionality presents a grand challenge in materials design. The F-actin cytoskeleton is an active polymer network which serves as the mechanical scaffolding for eukaryotic cells, growing and remodeling in order to determine changes in cell shape. Nucleated from the membrane, filaments polymerize and grow into a dense network whose dynamics of assembly and disassembly, or 'turnover', coordinates both fluidity and rigidity. Here, we vary the extent of F-actin nucleation from a membrane surface in a biomimetic model of the cytoskeleton constructed from purified protein. We find that nucleation of F-actin mediates the accumulation and dissipation of polymerization-induced F-actin bending energy. At high and low nucleation, bending energies are low and easily relaxed yielding an isotropic material. However, at an intermediate critical nucleation, stresses are not relaxed by turnover and the internal energy accumulates 100-fold. In this case, high filament curvatures template further assembly of F-actin, driving the formation and stabilization of vortex-like topological defects. Thus, nucleation coordinates mechanical and chemical timescales to encode shape memory into active materials.

Keywords: actin; defects; memory; nucleation; turnover.