Mechanotransduction is known as the cellular mechanism converting insoluble biophysical signals in the local cellular microenvironment (e.g. matrix rigidity, external mechanical forces, and fluid shear) into intracellular signalling to regulate cellular behaviours. While microfluidic technologies support a precise and independent control of soluble factors in the cellular microenvironment (e.g. growth factors, nutrients, and dissolved gases), the regulation of insoluble biophysical signals in microfluidics, especially matrix rigidity and adhesive pattern, has not yet been achieved. Here we reported an integrated soft lithography-compatible microfluidic methodology that could enable independent controls and modulations of fluid shear, substrate rigidity, and adhesive pattern in a microfluidic environment, by integrating micromolded elastomeric micropost arrays and microcontact printing with microfluidics. The geometry of the elastomeric micropost array could be regulated to mediate substrate rigidity and adhesive pattern, and further the elastomeric microposts could be utilized as force sensors to map live-cell subcellular contractile forces. To illustrate the general application of our methodology, we investigated the flow-mediated endothelial mechanotransduction process and examined specifically the involvement of subcellular contractile forces in the morphological realignment process of endothelial cells under a sustained directional fluid shear. Our results showed that the cytoskeletal contractile forces of endothelial cells were spatiotemporally regulated and coordinated to facilitate their morphology elongation process along the direction of flow. Together, our study provided an integrated microfluidic strategy to modulate the in vitro cellular microenvironment with both defined soluble and insoluble signals, and we demonstrated its application to investigate quantitatively the involvement of cytoskeletal contractile forces in the flow-mediated mechanotransduction process of endothelial cells.
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