The role of actin netoworks in cellular mechanosensing

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Physical processes play an important role in many biological phenomena, such as wound healing, organ development, and tumor metastasis. During these processes, cells constantly interact with and adapt to their environment by exerting forces to mechanically probe the features of their surroundings and generating appropriate biochemical responses. The mechanisms underlying how cells sense the physical properties of their environment are not well understood. In this thesis, I present my studies to investigate cellular responses to the stiffness and topography of the environment.

In order to sense the physical properties of their environment, cells dynamically reorganize the structure of their actin cytoskeleton, a dynamic network of biopolymers, altering the shape and spatial distribution of protein assemblies. Several observations suggest that proteins that crosslink actin filaments may play an important role in cellular mechanosensitivity. Palladin is an actin-crosslinking protein that is found in the lamellar actin network, stress fibers and focal adhesions, cellular structures that are critical for mechanosensing of the physical environment. By virtue of its close interactions with these structures in the cell, palladin may play an important role in cell mechanics. However, the role of actin crosslinkers in general, and palladin in particular, in cellular force generation and mechanosensing is not well known. I have investigated the role of palladin in regulating the plasticity of the actin cytoskeleton and cellular force generation in response to alterations in substrate stiffness. I have shown that the expression levels of palladin modulate the forces exerted by cells and their ability to sense substrate stiffness. Perturbation experiments also suggest that palladin levels in cells altered myosin motor activity. These results suggest that the actin crosslinkers, such as palladin, and myosin motors coordinate for optimal cell function and to prevent aberrant behavior as in cancer metastasis.

In addition to stiffness, the local geometry or topography of the surface has been shown to modulate the movement, morphology, and cytoskeletal organization of cells. However, the effect of topography on fluctuations of intracellular structures, which arise from motor driven activity on a viscoelastic actin network are not known. I have used nanofabricated substrates with parallel ridges to show that the cell shape, the actin cytoskeleton and focal adhesions all align along the direction of the ridges, exhibiting a biphasic dependence on the spacing between ridges. I further demonstrated that palladin bands along actin stress fibers undergo a complex diffusive motion with velocities aligned along the direction of ridges. These results provide insight into the mechanisms of cellular mechanosensing of the environment, suggesting a complex interplay between the actin cytoskeleton and cellular adhesions in coordinating cellular response to surface topography.

Overall, this work has advanced our understanding of mechanisms that govern cellular responses to their physical environment.