Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology



First Thesis Advisor

Yu-Li Wang, Ph.D.


Cell Adhesion, Focal Adhesion Protein-Tyrosine Kinases, Cell Culture Techniques, 3T3 Cells, Biocompatible Materials, Cell Aggregation, Cell Movement, Myosin Type II, Mice


Topographical and mechanical properties of adhesive substrates provide important biological cues that affect cell spreading, migration, growth, and differentiation. The phenomenon has led to the increased use of topographically patterned and flexible substrates in studying cultured cells. However, these studies may be complicated by various limitations. For example, the effects of ligand distribution and porosity are affected by topographical features of 3D biological constructs. Similarly, many studies of mechanical cues are compounded with cellular deformation from external forces, or limited by comparative studies of separate cells on different substrates. Furthermore, understanding cell responses to mechanical input is dependent upon reliable measurements of mechanical properties. This work addresses each of these issues.

To determine how substrate topography and focal adhesion kinase (FAK) affect cell shape and movement, I studied FAK-null (FAK -/-) and wild type mouse 3T3 fibroblasts on chemically identical polystyrene substrates with either flat surfaces or micron-sized pillars, I found that, compared to cells on flat surfaces, those on pillar substrates showed a more branched shape, an increased linear speed, and a decreased directional stability, which were dependent on both myosin-II and FAK.

To study the dynamic responses to changes in substrate stiffness without other confounding effects, I developed a UV-modulatable substrate that softens upon UV irradiation. As atomic force microscopy (AFM) proved inadequate to detect microscale changes in stiffness, I first developed and validated a microsphere indentation method that is compatible with fluorescence microscopy. The results obtained with this method were comparable to those obtained with AFM. The UV-modulatable substrates softened by ~20-30% with an intensity of irradiation that has no detectable effect on 3T3 cells on control surfaces. Cells responded to global softening of the substrate with an initial retraction followed by a gradual reduction in spread area. Precise spatial control of softening is also possible - while there was little response to posterior softening, anterior softening elicited a pronounced retraction and either a reversal of cell polarity or a significant decrease in spread area if the cells move into the softened region.

In conclusion, these techniques provide advances in gaining mechanistic insight into cellular responses to topographical and mechanical cues. Additionally, there are various other potential applications of the novel UV-softening substrate, particularly in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.



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