Molecular interactions and forces of adhesion between single human neural stem cells and gelatin methacrylate hydrogels of varying stiffness



Publication Details

Puckert, C., Tomaskovic-Crook, E., Gambhir, S., Wallace, G., Crook, J. & Higgins, M. (2020). Molecular interactions and forces of adhesion between single human neural stem cells and gelatin methacrylate hydrogels of varying stiffness. Acta Biomaterialia,


© 2020 Single Cell Force Spectroscopy was applied to measure the single cell de-adhesion between human neural stem cells (hNSC) and gelatin methacrylate (GelMA) hydrogel with varying modulus in the range equivalent to brain tissue. The cell de-adhesion force and energy were predominately generated via unbinding of complexes formed between RGD groups of the GelMA and cell surface integrin receptors and the de-adhesion force/energy were found to increase with decreasing modulus of the GelMA hydrogel. For the softer GelMA hydrogels (160 Pa and 450 Pa) it was proposed that a lower degree of cross-linking enables a greater number of polymer chains to bind and freely extend to increase the force and energy of the hNSC-GelMA de-adhesion. In this case, the multiple polymer chains are believed to act together in parallel like ‘molecular tensors’ to generate tensile forces on the bound receptors until the cell detaches. Counterintuitively for softer substrates, this type of interaction gave rise to higher force loading rates, including the appearance of high and low dynamic force regimes in de-adhesion rupture force versus loading rate analysis. For the stiffer GelMA hydrogel (900 Pa) it was observed that the extension and elastic restoring forces of the polymer chains contributed less to the cell de-adhesion. Due to the apparent lower extent of freely interacting chains on the stiffer GelMA hydrogel the intrinsic RGD groups are presumed to be “more fixed” to the substrate. Hence, the cell de-adhesion is suggested to be mainly governed by the discrete unbinding of integrin-RGD complexes as opposed to elastic restoring forces of polymer chains, leading to smaller piconewton rupture forces and only a single lower dynamic force regime. Intriguingly, when integrin antibodies were introduced for binding integrin α5β1, β1- and αv-subunits it was revealed that the cell modifies the de-adhesion force depending on the substrate stiffness. The antibody binding supressed the de-adhesion on the softer GelMA hydrogel while on the stiffer GelMA hydrogel caused an opposing reinforcement in the de-adhesion. Statement of Significance: Conceptual models on cell mechanosensing have provided molecular-level insight to rationalize the effects of substrate stiffness. However most experimental studies evaluate the cell adhesion by analysing the bulk material properties. As such there is a discrepancy in the scale between the bulk properties versus the nano- and micro-scale cell interactions. Furthermore there is a paucity of experimental studies on directly measuring the molecular-level forces of cell-material interactions. Here we apply Single Cell Force Spectroscopy to directly measure the adhesion forces between human neural stem cells and gelatin-methacrylate hydrogel. We elucidate the mechanisms by which single cells bind and physically interact with hydrogels of varying stiffness. The study highlights the use of single cell analysis tools to probe molecular-level interactions at the cell-material interface which is of importance in designing material cues for regulating cell function.

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