Cell Migration on Opposing Rigidity Protein Gradients: Single Cell and Co-culture Studies

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Virginia Tech

Cell migration is a complex physiological process that is important from embryogenesis to senescence. In vivo, the migration of cells is guided by a complex combination of signals and cues. Directed migration is typically observed when one of these cues is presented to cells as a gradient. Several studies have been conducted into directed migration on gradients that are purely mechanical or chemical. Our goal was to investigate cellular migratory behavior when cells are presented with a choice and have to choose between increasing substrate rigidity or higher protein concentration. We chose to focus on this unique environment since it recapitulates several interfacial regions in vivo. We have designed novel hydrogels that exhibit dual and opposing chemical and mechanical profiles using photo-polymerization. Our studies demonstrate that durotaxis, a well-known phenomenon, can be reversed when cells sense a steep protein profile in the opposite direction.

Fibroblasts were co-cultured with macrophages to obtain an understanding on how migration occurs when two different cell types are present in the same microenvironment. First, we investigated the migratory behavior of macrophages. These cell types exhibited a statistically significant preference to move towards the rigid/low collagen region of the interface. Interestingly, fibroblasts when co-cultured with macrophages, exhibited a preference for the low modulus-high collagen region of the interface. However, with the current sample size, these trends are statistically insignificant. On the contrary, the presence of fibroblasts in the cellular microenvironment did not result in the reversal of durotaxis exhibited by macrophages. Macrophages secreted significantly higher levels of secreted tumor necrosis factor (TNF-alpha) in mono-cultures in contrast to fibroblast-macrophage co-cultures. This trend could be an indication of macrophage plasticity between mono- and co-cultures. In summary, we have designed dual and opposing rigidity-protein gradients on a hydrogel substrate that can provide new insights into cellular locomotion. These results can be used to design biomimetic interfaces, biomaterial implants and for tissue engineering applications.

Cell Migration, Gradients, Durotaxis, Haptotaxis