Effect of matrix heterogeneity on cell mechanosensing

Soft Matter. 2021 Nov 24;17(45):10263-10273. doi: 10.1039/d1sm00312g.


Cells sense mechanical signals within the extracellular matrix, the most familiar being stiffness, but matrix stiffness cannot be simply described by a single value. Randomness in matrix structure causes stiffness at the scale of a cell to vary by more than an order of magnitude. Additionally, the extracellular matrix contains ducts, blood vessels, and, in cancer or fibrosis, regions with abnormally high stiffness. These different features could alter the stiffness sensed by a cell, but it is unclear whether the change in stiffness is large enough to overcome the noise caused by heterogeneity due to the random fibrous structure. Here we used a combination of experiments and modeling to determine the extent to which matrix heterogeneity disrupts the potential for cell sensing of a locally stiff feature in the matrix. Results showed that, at the scale of a single cell, spatial heterogeneity in local stiffness was larger than the increase in stiffness due to a stiff feature. The heterogeneity was reduced only for large length scales compared to the fiber length. Experiments verified this conclusion, showing spheroids of cells, which were large compared to the average fiber length, spreading preferentially toward stiff inclusions. Hence, the propagation of mechanical cues through the matrix depends on length scale, with single cells being able to sense only the stiffness of the nearby fibers and multicellular structures, such as tumors, also sensing the stiffness of distant matrix features.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Physiological Phenomena
  • Extracellular Matrix*
  • Mechanoreceptors*