Cellular orientation is guided by strain gradients†
The strain-induced reorientation response of cyclically stretched cells has been well characterized in uniform strain fields. In the present study, we comprehensively analyse the behaviour of human fibroblasts subjected to a highly non-uniform strain field within a polymethylsiloxane microdevice. Our results indicate that the strain gradient amplitude and direction regulate cell reorientation through a coordinated gradient avoidance response. We provide critical evidence that strain gradient is a key physical cue that can guide cell organization. Specifically, our work suggests that cells are able to pinpoint the location under the cell of multiple physical cues and integrate this information (strain and strain gradient amplitudes and directions), resulting in a coordinated response. To gain insight into the underlying mechanosensing processes, we studied focal adhesion reorganization and the effect of modulating myosin-II contractility. The extracted focal adhesion orientation distributions are similar to those obtained for the cell bodies, and their density is increased by the presence of stretching forces. Moreover, it was found that the myosin-II activity promoter calyculin-A has little effect on the cellular response, while the inhibitor blebbistatin suppresses cell and focal adhesion alignment and reduces focal adhesion density. These results confirm that similar internal structures involved in sensing and responding to strain direction and amplitude are also key players in strain gradient mechanosensing and avoidance.