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J Cell Sci. 2011 Jan 1;124(Pt 1):9-18. doi: 10.1242/jcs.071001.

Mechanisms of mechanical signaling in development and disease.

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Institute for Medicine and Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, 1010 Vagelos Laboratories, 3340 Smith Walk, PA 19104, USA.


The responses of cells to chemical signals are relatively well characterized and understood. Cells also respond to mechanical signals in the form of externally applied force and forces generated by cell-matrix and cell-cell contacts. Many features of cell function that are generally considered to be under the control of chemical stimuli, such as motility, proliferation, differentiation and survival, can also be altered by changes in the stiffness of the substrate to which the cells are adhered, even when their chemical environment remains unchanged. Many examples from clinical and whole animal studies have shown that changes in tissue stiffness are related to specific disease characteristics and that efforts to restore normal tissue mechanics have the potential to reverse or prevent cell dysfunction and disease. How cells detect stiffness is largely unknown, but the cellular structures that measure stiffness and the general principles by which they work are beginning to be revealed. This Commentary highlights selected recent reports of mechanical signaling during disease development, discusses open questions regarding the physical mechanisms by which cells sense stiffness, and examines the relationship between studies in vitro on flat substrates and the more complex three-dimensional setting in vivo.

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