A microstructural approach to cytoskeletal mechanics based on tensegrity

J Theor Biol. 1996 Jul 21;181(2):125-36. doi: 10.1006/jtbi.1996.0120.


Mechanical properties of living cells are commonly described in terms of the laws of continuum mechanics. The purpose of this report is to consider the implications of an alternative approach that emphasizes the discrete nature of stress bearing elements in the cell and is based on the known structural properties of the cytoskeleton. We have noted previously that tensegrity architecture seems to capture essential qualitative features of cytoskeletal shape distortion in adherent cells (Ingber, 1993a; Wang et al., 1993). Here we extend those qualitative notions into a formal microstructural analysis. On the basis of that analysis we attempt to identify unifying principles that might underlie the shape stability of the cytoskeleton. For simplicity, we focus on a tensegrity structure containing six rigid struts interconnected by 24 linearly elastic cables. Cables carry initial tension ("prestress") counterbalanced by compression of struts. Two cases of interconnectedness between cables and struts are considered: one where they are connected by pin-joints, and the other where the cables run through frictionless loops at the junctions. At the molecular level, the pinned structure may represent the case in which different cytoskeletal filaments are cross-linked whereas the looped structure represents the case where they are free to slip past one another. The system is then subjected to uniaxial stretching. Using the principal of virtual work, stretching force vs. extension and structural stiffness vs. stretching force relationships are calculated for different prestresses. The stiffness is found to increase with increasing prestress and, at a given prestress, to increase approximately linearly with increasing stretching force. This behavior is consistent with observations in living endothelial cells exposed to shear stresses (Wang & Ingber, 1994). At a given prestress, the pinned structure is found to be stiffer than the looped one, a result consistent with data on mechanical behavior of isolated, cross-linked and uncross-linked actin networks (Wachsstock et al., 1993). On the basis of our analysis we concluded that architecture and the prestress of the cytoskeleton might be key features that underlie a cell's ability to regulate its shape.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytoskeleton / ultrastructure*
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Models, Biological
  • Stress, Mechanical