Stress relaxation amplitude of hydrogels determines migration, proliferation, and morphology of cells in 3-D culture†
The viscoelastic behavior of hydrogel matrices sensitively influences the cell behavior in 3-D culture and biofabricated tissue model systems. Previous reports have demonstrated that cells tend to adhere, spread, migrate and proliferate better in hydrogels with pronounced stress relaxation. However, it is currently unknown if cells respond more sensitively to the amplitude of stress relaxation, or to the relaxation time constant. To test this, we compare the behavior of fibroblasts cultured for up to 10 days in alginate and oxidized alginate hydrogels with similar Young's moduli but diverging stress relaxation behavior. We find that fibroblasts elongate, migrate and proliferate better in hydrogels that display a higher stress relaxation amplitude. By contrast, the cells’ response to the relaxation time constant was less pronounced and less consistent. Together, these data suggest that it is foremost the stress relaxation amplitude of the matrix that determines the ability of cells to locally penetrate and structurally remodel the matrix on a molecular level, which subsequently leads to better spreading, faster migration, and higher cell proliferation. We conclude that the stress relaxation amplitude is a central design parameter for optimizing cell behavior in 3-D hydrogels.