Single Cell Force Platforms to Link Force-ECM Coupling in Pathophysiology

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Virginia Tech


Migratory cells in vivo move within a predominantly fibrous microenvironment through the action of forces. These dynamic interactions facilitate mechanosensing, critical to fundamental biological processes in pathophysiology. Naturally, the field of mechanobiology has evolved over the past several decades to decipher the role of forces in mechanotransduction using a variety of force-measurement platforms. A central challenge that has yet to be overcome in the field is connecting forces with the interplay between cell shape and ever-changing environment. Here, through design of specific fibrous architectures, a mechanobiological understanding of force feed-forward loop accounting for shape shifting of the environment and cells is developed.
Using the non-electrospinning Spinneret Tunable Engineered Parameters (STEP) technique, two complementary force measurement platforms of varying physical attributes are developed to investigate how the force feed-forward loop impacts cell fate. Nanonet Force Microscopy (NFM) comprised of aligned nanonets is designed to study anisotropic cell shapes, while Crosshatch Force Microscopy (CM) comprised of orthogonal arrangement of fibers is designed to study cell bodies of broad shapes. The combination of shapes achieved on these networks recapitulate mesenchymal shapes observed in vivo, which are used to describe cell behaviors not reported before. The new findings include (i) discovery of a new biological structure, termed 3D-perpendicular lateral protrusions (3D-PLPs) which is proposed to be the missing biophysical link in the remodeling of the ECM and perpetuation of desmoplasia. Using NFM, seven discreet steps in formation of force-exerting PLPs anywhere along the cell body is documented, which allow cells to spread laterally and increase in contractility. Using a variety of fiber networks, it is shown that aligned fibers are necessary for PLP formation and suitable environments for myofibroblast activation, and (ii) a force dipole that links matrix deformability with cell contractility. Aided by machine learning, CFM automates the process of fiber feature recognition to measure forces as cells change shapes during migration and differentiate to osteogenic and adipogenic lineages. The force platforms are applied to investigate (i) the bioenergetic contributors fueling cellular migration and a surprisingly overwhelming impact of glycolytic energetic pathway over the traditionally thought mitochondrial energy production is found. However, neither pathway has substantial impact over the cellular force production, and (ii) quantitate the migratory and contractile response of enucleated cytoplasmic fragments naturally shed by cells. A peculiar contractility driven oscillatory migratory phenotype is found, capable of lasting over tens of hours, and absent in intact cells. Overall, new high spatiotemporal capabilities are developed in mechanobiology to quantitate the force-feed forward loops between cell shape and ECM in pathophysiology.



Cell Forces, Nanonet Force Microscopy, Crosshatch Force Microscopy, Mechanobiology, Anisotropic ECM