The deformation of a cell in response to an applied force is mainly determined by the cytoskeleton. The cytoskeleton is composed of three distinct classes of polymeric protein fibers that form a complex array within the cell. Many experimental techniques have been devised to understand the structural or mechanical properties of this unique polymeric material. This review article focuses on describing the recent models created to interpret these experiments on cellular deformation and quantify the individual contribution of the three cytoskeletal polymers in determining the mechanical response of the cell. These studies reveal that the cytoskeleton gives the cell remarkably versatile structural properties. The cytoskeletal polymers interact in vivo to form a composite material whose structural properties and architecture enable the cell to withstand a wide range of forces, and additionally to function in an optimal manner. Importantly, these studies show that the connection between the functioning of the cell and its mechanical properties is clearly revealed in certain pathologies, such as cancer.
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