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Cell and molecular mechanics of biological materials


Living cells can sense mechanical forces and convert them into biological responses. Similarly, biological and biochemical signals are known to influence the abilities of cells to sense, generate and bear mechanical forces. Studies into the mechanics of single cells, subcellular components and biological molecules have rapidly evolved during the past decade with significant implications for biotechnology and human health. This progress has been facilitated by new capabilities for measuring forces and displacements with piconewton and nanometre resolutions, respectively, and by improvements in bio-imaging. Details of mechanical, chemical and biological interactions in cells remain elusive. However, the mechanical deformation of proteins and nucleic acids may provide key insights for understanding the changes in cellular structure, response and function under force, and offer new opportunities for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. This review discusses some basic features of the deformation of single cells and biomolecules, and examines opportunities for further research.

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Figure 1: Cell structure and elastic properties.
Figure 2: Schematic representation of the three types of experimental technique used to probe living cells.
Figure 3: Microfabricated and MEMS devices for cell mechanics measurement.

Copyright © 1997(c) & 2003 (a & b) National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. Photograph (d) courtesy of unpublished work from D. A. LaVan, P. Leduc and G. Bao. Device fabricated in the Sandia Microelectronic Development Laboratory.

Figure 4: Cytoskeleton dynamics in living cells, as illustrated by changes in the microtubule and actin filament network during cell spreading and the rearrangement of stress fibres after cyclic stretching.

Reprinted with the permission of the Biomedical Engineering Society (b and c).

Figure 5: DNA and its elastic behaviour under stretching and twisting.

Copyright © 2003 Nature Publishing Group (b, c and e)

Figure 6: Basic structural features, characteristic length and time scales and typical force ranges of proteins.
Figure 7: Domain deformation and unfolding of a multidomain protein under stretching with AFM.

© Copyright 1999, Elsevier Science

Figure 8: The molecular motor ATP synthase.

Copyright © 1998 Nature Publishing Group (a)


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We acknowledge support from the United States Army Research Office, which facilitated the preparation of this review article. S.S. further acknowledges support from the Singapore-MIT Alliance Programme on Molecular Engineering of Biological and Chemical Systems.

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Bao, G., Suresh, S. Cell and molecular mechanics of biological materials. Nature Mater 2, 715–725 (2003).

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