The ability of a eukaryotic cell to resist deformation, to transport intracellular cargo and to change shape during movement depends on the cytoskeleton, an interconnected network of filamentous polymers and regulatory proteins. Recent work has demonstrated that both internal and external physical forces can act through the cytoskeleton to affect local mechanical properties and cellular behaviour. Attention is now focused on how cytoskeletal networks generate, transmit and respond to mechanical signals over both short and long timescales. An important insight emerging from this work is that long-lived cytoskeletal structures may act as epigenetic determinants of cell shape, function and fate.
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We thank O. Chaudhuri, D. Richmond, V. Risca and other members of the Fletcher laboratory for discussion and assistance with this Review. We also benefited from interactions with the researchers and students in the 2009 Physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Work in our laboratories is supported by R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and by the Cell Propulsion Lab, an NIH Nanomedicine Development Center. We apologize to those colleagues whose work could not be cited because of space constraints.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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