Research ArticleCELL MODELS

Curvature and Rho activation differentially control the alignment of cells and stress fibers

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Science Advances  06 Sep 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 9, e1700150
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700150


In vivo, cells respond to a host of physical cues ranging from substrate stiffness to the organization of micro- and nanoscale fibrous networks. We show that macroscale substrates with radii of curvature from tens to hundreds of micrometers influence cell alignment. In a model system of fibroblasts, isolated cells aligned strongly in the axial direction on cylinders with radii similar to the cell length and more weakly on cylinders of much larger radius. Isolated vascular smooth muscle cells did not align as effectively as fibroblasts. However, both cell types aligned robustly in weak curvature fields when in confluent monolayers. We identified two distinct populations of stress fibers in both cell types: long, apical stress fibers that aligned axially and short, basal stress fibers that aligned circumferentially. Circumferential alignment of the basal stress fibers is in apparent disagreement with a long-standing hypothesis that energetic penalties for bending enforce axial alignment on cylinders. To explore this phenomenon, we manipulated stress fibers by activating Rho, a small guanosine triphosphatase that regulates stress fiber assembly. In response, apical stress fibers disassembled, whereas basal stress fibers thickened and aligned more strongly in the circumferential direction. By activating Rho in confluent monolayers of vascular smooth muscle cells, we recapitulated the circumferential alignment pattern of F-actin within these cells that is observed in cylindrical vessels in vivo. In agreement with recent theory, these results suggest that stress fiber bending penalties are overcome when stress fiber contractility is enhanced and motivate deeper study of the mechanics of these distinct stress fiber populations.

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