GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Date of Completion

May 2003

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences


Cell Movement; Microscopy; Fibroblasts; 3T3 Cells; Biomechanics; Dissertations, UMMS; Academic Dissertations


Cell migration involves complex mechanical interactions between cells or between cells and the underlying substrate. Using a newly developed technique, "traction force microscopy", I have been able to visualize the dynamic characteristics of mechanical forces exerted by migrating fibroblasts such as magnitude, direction, and shear. For NIH 3T3 fibroblasts, I found that the lamellipodium provides nearly all of the force necessary for cell migration. A high shear zone separates the lamellipodium from the remainder of the cell body, suggesting that they are mechanically distinct entities. The timing of the tractions at the leading edge, as well as the spatial distribution, bears no apparent relationship to concurrent local protrusive activities, yet changes in traction force patterns often precede changes in migration direction. In H-ras transformed cells I found isolated regions of weak, transient traction forces in pseudopods all along the cell that appeared to act against one another. The resulting shear pattern suggested that there were multiple disorganized mechanical domains. These results support a frontal towing model for cell migration where the dynamic traction forces at the leading edge served to actively pull the cell body forward. In H-ras transformed cells, the weak poorly coordinated traction forces coupled with weak cell substrate-adhesions were likely responsible for the abnormal motile behavior of these cells. To probe the mechanical interactions beneath various regions of migrating fibroblasts, a cell substrate inhibitor (GRGDTP peptide) was locally applied while imaging stress distribution on the substrate utilizing traction force microscopy. I found that both spontaneous and GRGDTP induced detachment of the trailing edge resulted in extensive cell shortening with no change in overall traction force magnitude or cell migration. Conversely, leading edge disruption resulted in a dramatic global loss of traction forces pnor to any significant cell shortening. These results suggested that fibroblasts transmit their contractile forces to the substrate through two distinct types of adhesions. Leading edge adhesions were unique in their ability to transmit active propulsive forces whereas trailing end adhesions created passive resistance during cell migration and readily redistributed their loads upon detachment. I have also investigated how fibroblasts regulate traction forces based on mechanical input. My results showed that stretching forces applied through the flexible substrate induced increases in both intracellular calcium concentration and traction forces in fibroblasts. Treatment with gadolinium, a well known stretch-activated ion channel inhibitor, was found to inhibit both traction forces and cell migration without inhibiting cellular spread morphology or protrusive activities. Gadolinium treatment also caused a pronounced decrease in vinculin and phosphotyrosine concentrations from focal adhesions. Local application of gadolinium to the trailing region had no detectable effect on overall traction forces or cell migration, whereas local application to the leading edge caused a global inhibition of traction forces and an inhibition of migration. These observations suggest that stretch activated entry of calcium ions in the frontal region serves to regulate the organization of focal adhesions and the output of mechanical forces. Together my experiments elucidate how fibroblasts exert mechanical forces to propel their movements, and how fibroblasts utilize mechanical input to regulate their movements.

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