Stem cells that adopt distinct lineages cannot be distinguished based on traditional cell shape. This study reports that higher-order variations in cell shape and cytoskeletal organization that occur within hours of stimulation forecast the lineage commitment fates of human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). The unique approach captures numerous early (24 h), quantitative features of actin fluororeporter shapes, intensities, textures, and spatial distributions (collectively termed morphometric descriptors). The large number of descriptors are reduced into "combinations" through which distinct subpopulations of cells featuring unique combinations are identified. We demonstrate that hMSCs cultured on fibronectin-treated glass substrates under environments permissive to bone lineage induction could be readily discerned within the first 24 h from those cultured in basal- or fat-inductive conditions by such cytoskeletal feature groupings. We extend the utility of this approach to forecast osteogenic stem cell lineage fates across a series of synthetic polymeric materials of diverse physicochemical properties. Within the first 24 h following stem cell seeding, we could successfully "profile" the substrate responsiveness prospectively in terms of the degree of bone versus nonbone predisposition. The morphometric methodology also provided insights into how substrates may modulate the pace of osteogenic lineage specification. Cells on glass substrates deficient in fibronectin showed a similar divergence of lineage fates, but delayed beyond 48 h. In summary, this high-content imaging and single cell modeling approach offers a framework to elucidate and manipulate determinants of stem cell behaviors, as well as to screen stem cell lineage modulating materials and environments.
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