Nature, Vol.584, No.7822, 535-546, 2020
Effects of extracellular matrix viscoelasticity on cellular behaviour
This Review explores the role of viscoelasticity of tissues and extracellular matrices in cell-matrix interactions and mechanotransduction and the potential utility of viscoelastic biomaterials in regenerative medicine. Substantial research over the past two decades has established that extracellular matrix (ECM) elasticity, or stiffness, affects fundamental cellular processes, including spreading, growth, proliferation, migration, differentiation and organoid formation. Linearly elastic polyacrylamide hydrogels and polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) elastomers coated with ECM proteins are widely used to assess the role of stiffness, and results from such experiments are often assumed to reproduce the effect of the mechanical environment experienced by cells in vivo. However, tissues and ECMs are not linearly elastic materials-they exhibit far more complex mechanical behaviours, including viscoelasticity (a time-dependent response to loading or deformation), as well as mechanical plasticity and nonlinear elasticity. Here we review the complex mechanical behaviours of tissues and ECMs, discuss the effect of ECM viscoelasticity on cells, and describe the potential use of viscoelastic biomaterials in regenerative medicine. Recent work has revealed that matrix viscoelasticity regulates these same fundamental cell processes, and can promote behaviours that are not observed with elastic hydrogels in both two- and three-dimensional culture microenvironments. These findings have provided insights into cell-matrix interactions and how these interactions differentially modulate mechano-sensitive molecular pathways in cells. Moreover, these results suggest design guidelines for the next generation of biomaterials, with the goal of matching tissue and ECM mechanics for in vitro tissue models and applications in regenerative medicine.