Epithelial cells exert differential traction stress in response to substrate stiffness

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Epithelial wound healing is essential for maintaining the function and clarity of the cornea. Successful repair after injury involves the coordinated movements of cell sheets over the wounded region. While collective migration has been the focus of studies, the effects that environmental changes have on this form of movement are poorly understood. To examine the role of substrate compliancy on multi-layered epithelial sheet migration, we performed traction force and confocal microscopy to determine differences in traction forces and to examine focal adhesions on synthetic and biological substrates. The leading edges of corneal epithelial sheets undergo retraction or contraction prior to migration, and alterations in the sheet's stiffness are affected by the amount of force exerted by cells at the leading edge. On substrates of 30 kPa, cells exhibited greater and more rapid movement than on substrates of 8 kPa, which are similar to that of the corneal basement membrane. Vinculin and its phosphorylated residue Y1065 were prominent along the basal surface of migrating cells, while Y822 was prominent between neighboring cells along the leading edge. Vinculin localization was diffuse on a substrate where the basement membrane was removed. Furthermore, when cells were cultured on fibronectin-coated acrylamide substrates of 8 and 50 kPa and then wounded, there was an injury-induced phosphorylation of Y1065 and substrate dependent changes in the number and size of vinculin containing focal adhesions. These results demonstrate that changes in substrate stiffness affected traction forces and vinculin dynamics, which potentially could contribute to the delayed healing response associated with certain corneal pathologies.




Onochie, O. E., Zollinger, A., Rich, C. B., Smith, M., & Trinkaus-Randall, V. (2019). Epithelial cells exert differential traction stress in response to substrate stiffness. Experimental Eye Research, 181, 25–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exer.2019.01.014

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