Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Christopher S. Chen


Two-dimensional (2D) studies have revealed that mechanical forces drive cell migration and can feedback to regulate proliferation, differentiation and the synthesis/remodeling of extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins. Whether these observations can be translated to clinical settings or be utilized for tissue engineering will depend critically on our ability to translate these findings into physiologically relevant three-dimensional (3D) environments. The general goal of this dissertation has been to develop and apply new technologies capable of extending studies of cell and tissue mechanics into 3D environments.

In the first project, we measured both shear and normal traction forces exerted by cells cultured on planar substrates. We observed that focal adhesions serve as pivots about which cells generate rotational moments.

In the second project, we combined enzymatically degradable synthetic hydrogels with finite element models to measure the mechanical tractions exerted by cells fully encapsulated within 3D matrices. We found that cells reach out thin protrusions and pull back inward towards the cell body with the highest forces at the tip. Cellular extensions that were invading into the surrounding matrix displayed a strong inward force 10-15 microns behind the leading tip, suggesting that growing extensions may establish a "contractile waypoint," before invading further.

To study the forces cells exert during tissue remodeling, we utilized photolithograpy to generate arrays of microtissues consisting of cells encapsulated in 3D collagen matrices. Microcantilevers were used to constrain the remodeling of the collagen gel and to report the forces generated during this process. We used this technique to explore the effects of boundary stiffness and matrix density within model tendon and cardiac tissues. Finally, we combined this system with a Foerster radius energy transfer (FRET) based biosensor of fibronectin conformation to reveal how tissue geometry and cell-genereated tractions cooperate to pattern matrix conformation during tissue remodeling.

Together, these studies highlight novel approaches to understand the nature of cell-ECM interactions in 3D matrices. Such mechanical insights will help us to understand how physical forces drive cell migration and behavior within physiologically relevant environments.

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