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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Feb 2;96(3):921-6.

Dimensional and mechanical dynamics of active and stable edges in motile fibroblasts investigated by using atomic force microscopy.

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Lehrstuhl für Angewandte Physik, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität M unchen, Amalienstrasse 54, 80799 München, Germany.


The atomic force microscope (AFM) was employed to investigate the extension and retraction dynamics of protruding and stable edges of motile 3T3 fibroblasts in culture. Such dynamics closely paralleled the results of earlier studies employing video microscopy that indicated that the AFM force-mapping technique does not appreciably perturb these dynamics. Force scans permitted height determinations of active and stable edges. Whereas the profiles of active edges are flat with average heights of 0.4-0.8 micrometer, stable edges smoothly ascend to 2-3 micrometers within about 6 micrometers of the edge. In the region of the leading edge, the height fluctuates up to 50% (SD) of the mean value, much more than the stable edge; this fluctuation presumably reflects differences in underlying cytoskeletal activity. In addition, force mapping yields an estimate of the local Young's modulus or modulus of elasticity (E, the cortical stiffness). This stiffness will be related to "cortical tension," can be accurately calculated for the stable edges, and is approximately 12 kPa in this case. The thinness of the leading edge precludes accurate estimation of the E values, but within 4 micrometers of the margin it is considerably smaller than that for stable edges, which have an upper limit of 3-5 kPa. Although blebbing cannot absolutely be ruled out as a mechanism of extension, the data are consistent with an actin polymerization and/or myosin motor mechanism in which the average material properties of the extending margin would be nearly constant to the edge. Because the leading edge is softer than the stable edge, these data also are consistent with the notion that extension preferentially occurs in regions of lower cortical tension.

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