Combining Dynamic Stretch and Tunable Stiffness to Probe Cell Mechanobiology In Vitro
Cells have the ability to actively sense their mechanical environment and respond to both substrate stiffness and stretch by altering their adhesion, proliferation, locomotion, morphology, and synthetic profile. In order to elucidate the interrelated effects of different mechanical stimuli on cell phenotype in vitro, we have developed a method for culturing mammalian cells in a two-dimensional environment at a wide range of combined levels of substrate stiffness and dynamic stretch. Polyacrylamide gels were covalently bonded to flexible silicone culture plates and coated with monomeric collagen for cell adhesion. Substrate stiffness was adjusted from relatively soft (G' = 0.3 kPa) to stiff (G' = 50 kPa) by altering the ratio of acrylamide to bis-acrylamide, and the silicone membranes were stretched over circular loading posts by applying vacuum pressure to impart near-uniform stretch, as confirmed by strain field analysis. As a demonstration of the system, porcine aortic valve interstitial cells (VIC) and human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC) were plated on soft and stiff substrates either statically cultured or exposed to 10% equibiaxial or pure uniaxial stretch at 1Hz for 6 hours. In all cases, cell attachment and cell viability were high. On soft substrates, VICs cultured statically exhibit a small rounded morphology, significantly smaller than on stiff substrates (p < 0.05). Following equibiaxial cyclic stretch, VICs spread to the extent of cells cultured on stiff substrates, but did not reorient in response to uniaxial stretch to the extent of cells stretched on stiff substrates. hMSCs exhibited a less pronounced response than VICs, likely due to a lower stiffness threshold for spreading on static gels. These preliminary data demonstrate that inhibition of spreading due to a lack of matrix stiffness surrounding a cell may be overcome by externally applied stretch suggesting similar mechanotransduction mechanisms for sensing stiffness and stretch.