How can cells sense the elasticity of a substrate? An analysis using a cell tensegrity model

G. De Santis, A.B. Lennon, F. Boschetti, B. Verhegghe, P. Verdonck, P.J. Prendergast

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


A eukaryotic cell attaches and spreads on substrates, whether it is the extracellular matrix naturally produced by the cell itself, or artificial materials, such as tissue-engineered scaffolds. Attachment and spreading require the cell to apply forces in the nN range to the substrate via adhesion sites, and these forces are balanced by the elastic response of the substrate. This mechanical interaction is one determinant of cell morphology and, ultimately, cell phenotype. In this paper we use a finite element model of a cell, with a tensegrity structure to model the cytoskeleton of actin filaments and microtubules, to explore the way cells sense the stiffness of the substrate and thereby adapt to it. To support the computational results, an analytical 1D model is developed for comparison. We find that (i) the tensegrity hypothesis of the cytoskeleton is sufficient to explain the matrix-elasticity sensing, (ii) cell sensitivity is not constant but has a bell-shaped distribution over the physiological matrix-elasticity range, and (iii) the position of the sensitivity peak over the matrix-elasticity range depends on the cytoskeletal structure and in particular on the F-actin organisation. Our model suggests that F-actin reorganisation observed in mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in response to change of matrix elasticity is a structural-remodelling process that shifts the sensitivity peak towards the new value of matrix elasticity. This finding discloses a potential regulatory role of scaffold stiffness for cell differentiation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-213
Number of pages12
JournalEuropean Cells and Materials (ECM)
Issue numbernull
Publication statusPublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biophysics
  • Cell Biology
  • General Medicine


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