Direct observations of the mechanical behaviors of the cytoskeleton in living fibroblasts

Steven R. Heidemann, Stefanie Kaech, Robert E. Buxbaum, Andrew Matus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

179 Scopus citations


Cytoskeletal proteins tagged with green fluorescent protein were used to directly visualize the mechanical role of the cytoskeleton in determining cell shape. Rat embryo (REF 52) fibroblasts were deformed using glass needles either uncoated for purely physical manipulations, or coated with laminin to induce attachment to the cell surface. Cells responded to uncoated probes in accordance with a three-layer model in which a highly elastic nucleus is surrounded by cytoplasmic microtubules that behave as a jelly-like viscoelastic fluid. The third, outermost cortical layer is an elastic shell under sustained tension. Adhesive, laminin-coated needles caused focal recruitment of actin filaments to the contacted surface region and increased the cortical layer stiffness. This direct visualization of actin recruitment confirms a widely postulated model for mechanical connections between extracellular matrix proteins and the actin cytoskeleton. Cells tethered to laminin-treated needles strongly resisted elongation by actively contracting. Whether using uncoated probes to apply simple deformations or laminin-coated probes to induce surface-to-cytoskeleton interaction we observed that experimentally applied forces produced exclusively local responses by both the actin and microtubule cytoskeleton. This local accommodation and dissipation of force is inconsistent with the proposal that cellular tensegrity determines cell shape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)109-122
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Cell Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 5 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Biorheology
  • Cell shape
  • Cytomechanics
  • Cytoskeleton
  • Integrins

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cell Biology


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