Rewiring mesenchymal stem cell lineage specification by switching the biophysical microenvironment

Junmin Lee, Amr A Abdeen, Kristopher A Kilian
Scientific Reports 2014, 4: 5188
The propensity of stem cells to specify and commit to a particular lineage program is guided by dynamic biophysical and biochemical signals that are temporally regulated. However, most in vitro studies rely on "snapshots" of cell state under static conditions. Here we asked whether changing the biophysical aspects of the substrate could modulate the degree of mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) lineage specification. We chose to explore two diverse differentiation outcomes: MSC osteogenesis and trans-differentiation to neuron-like cells. MSCs were cultured on soft (~0.5 kPa) or stiff (~40 kPa) hydrogels followed by transfer to gels of the opposite stiffness. MSCs on soft gels express elevated neurogenesis markers while MSCs on stiff substrates express elevated osteogenesis markers. Transfer of MSCs from soft to stiff or stiff to soft substrates led to a switch in lineage specification. However, MSCs transferred from stiff to soft substrates maintained elevated osteogenesis markers, suggesting a degree of irreversible activation. Transferring MSCs to micropatterned substrates reveal geometric cues that further modulate lineage reversal. Taken together, this study demonstrates that MSCs remain susceptible to the biophysical properties of the extracellular matrix--even after several weeks of culture--and can redirect lineage specification in response to changes in the microenvironment.

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