While the mechanical properties of a substrate or engineered scaffold can govern numerous aspects of cell behavior, cells quickly start to assemble their own matrix and will ultimately respond to their self-made extracellular matrix (ECM) microenvironments. Using fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), we detected major changes in the conformation of a constituent ECM protein, fibronectin (Fn), as cells fabricated a thick three-dimensional (3D) matrix over the course of three days. These data provide the first evidence that matrix maturation occurs and that aging is associated with increased stretching of fibronectin fibrils, which leads to at least partial unfolding of the secondary structure of individual protein modules. A comparison of the conformations of Fn in these 3D matrices with those constructed by cells on rigid and flexible polyacrylamide surfaces suggests that cells in maturing matrices experience a microenviroment of gradually increasing rigidity. In addition, further matrix stiffening is caused by active Fn fiber alignment parallel to the contractile axis of the elongated fibroblasts, a cell-driven effect previously described for other fibrillar matrices. The fibroblasts, therefore, not only cause matrix unfolding, but reciprocally respond to the altered Fn matrix properties by up-regulating their own rigidity response. Consequently, our data demonstrate for the first time that a matured and aged matrix has distinctly different physical and biochemical properties compared to a newly assembled matrix. This might allow cells to specifically recognise the age of a matrix.
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