© Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Belgrade.

All rights reserved FME Transactions (2006) 34, 57-64 57

Dimitrije Stamenović
Associate Professor
Department of Biomedical Engineering,
Boston University, Boston, USA

Cells as Tensegrity Structures:
Architectural Basis of the Cytoskeleton

Mechanotransduction - the cellular response to mechanical stress - is
governed by the cytoskeleton (CSK), a network composed of different types
of biopolymers that mechanically stabilizes the cell and actively generates
contractile forces. To carry out certain behaviors (e.g., crawling,
spreading, division, invasion), cells must modify their CSK to become
highly deformable, whereas in order to maintain their structural integrity
when mechanically loaded, the CSK must behave like an elastic solid.
Over two decades ago, a model of the cell based on tensegrity architectur
was introduced. The model proposes that prestress in the CSK is critical
for cell shape stability. Key to this model is the concept that this stabilizing
tensile prestress results from a complementary force balance between
multiple, discrete, molecular support elements, including microfilaments,
intermediate filaments and microtubules in the CSK, as well as external
adhesions to the extracellular matrix and to neighboring cells. In this
chapter, we review progress in the area of cellular tensegrity, including
the mechanistic basis of the tensegrity model, and development of
theoretical formulations of this model that have led to multiple a priori
predictions relating to cell mechanical behaviors which have been
confirmed in experimental studies with living cells.

Keywords: prestress, stiffness, cytoskeleton, acin filments, microtubules.



1. INTRODUCTION

It is well established that mechanical distortion of
cell shape can impact many cell behaviors, including
motility, contractility, growth, differentiation and
apoptosis [4, 10, 14, 29, 33, 34, 37, 39]. Mechanical
stresses produce these changes in cell function by
inducing restructuring of the CSK and thereby
impacting cellular biochemistry [3, 19, 31, 48]. Through
largely unknown mechanisms, these mechanical signals
are transduced into biochemical signals that lead to
changes gene expression and protein synthesis [24].
This process, known as mechanotransduction, is
governed by the cytoskeleton (CSK), a network
composed of filamentous biopolymers (actin
microfilaments, microtubules, intermediate filaments)
that mechanically stabilizes the cell and actively
generates contractile forces. Because the cytoskeletal
filaments can chemically depolymerize and
repolymerize, it was assumed in the past that cells alter
their mechanical properties through sol-gel transitions
[28, 48, 50]. However, cells can change shape from
round to highly spread without altering the total amount
of cytoskeletal polymer filaments in the cell [32],
suggesting that it is not chemical remodeling but rather
physical changes in mechanical forces across the CSK
that govern cell deformability. During the past decade, a
growing body of evidence has shown that preexisting
mechanical distending stress (or prestress) borne by the
CSK is a key determinant of cell deformability
[20, 35, 36, 45, 47, 56, 57]. This prestress results from
the action of tensional forces carried primarily by actin
microfilaments and, to a lesser extent, by intermediate
filaments and is resisted by external adhesive tethers to
the extracellular matrix (ECM), known as focal
adhesions (FAs), and to other cells, as well as by other
cytoskeletal filaments (e.g., microtubules) inside the
cell.
Standard continuum mechanics models that depict
the cell as an elastic or viscoelastic solid cannot
describe the influence of cytoskeletal prestress on cell
deformability. The reason is that those models a priori
assume that cells possess intrinsic stiffness in a stress-
free state and therefore do not require prestress to
stabilize them. Moreover, most of the existing
continuum-based models of cells are ad hoc
descriptions based on measurements obtained under
particular experimental conditions, and these continuum
models usually ignore contributions of subcellular
structures and molecular components. Over two
decades ago, Ingber introduced tensegrity architecture
as a model of cytoskeletal mechanics [25, 26]. A
hallmark property of tensegrity structures is that their
structural stability is provided by tensile prestress
carried by their cable-like elements. Key to the Ingber’s
cellular tensegrity model is the concept that this
stabilizing tensile prestress results from a
complementary force balance between multiple,
discrete, molecular support elements, including
microfilaments, intermediate filaments and
Received: Jun 2006, Accepted: September 2006.
Correspondence to: Dimitrije Stamenović
Boston University,
44 Cummington Street, Suite 107, Boston, MA 02215, USA
E-mail: dimitrij@bu.edu

58 ▪ VOL. 34, No 2, 2006 FME Transactions
microtubules in the CSK, as well as external adhesions
to the ECM and to neighboring cells.
In this article, we review progress in the area of
cellular tensegrity. We describe how the CSK and the
ECM form a single, tensionally integrated, system and
how distinct biopolymers of the CSK may bear either
tensile or compressive loads inside the cell. The cellular
tensegrity model is a useful description of cellular
mechanics because it provides a mechanism to link
mechanics to structure at the molecular level, in
addition to helping to explain how mechanical signals
are transduced into biochemical responses within living
cells and tissues.

2. BASIC PRINCIPLES OF TENSEGRITY
ARCHITECTURE

Tensegrity architecture is a building principle
introduced by R. Buckminster Fuller [15]. It describes a
class of discrete network structures that maintain their
structural integrity because of tensile prestress in their
cable-like structural members. Fuller referred to this
architecture as “tensional integrity”, shortly
“tensegrity”. Ordinary elastic materials (e.g., rubber,
polymers, and metals) by contrast, require no such
prestress. A hallmark property that stems from this
feature is that structural rigidity (stiffness) of the
network is nearly proportional to the level of the
prestress that it carries [44, 54]. As distinct from other
prestressed structures, in tensegrity architecture the
prestress in the cable network is balanced by
compression of internal elements called struts (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. A simple tensegrity model composed of 24
tension supporting cables (black lines), which play the role
of actin microfilaments, and 6 compression-supporting
struts (gray bars), which play the role of microtubules.
The cables carry pre-tension. The model is attached to the
extracellular matrix (ECM) at three focal adhesions (FA)
(black triangles). This particular model has been commonly
used in the past as a conceptual model of cellular
tensegrity [7, 43, 49, 54, 59].

In the Ingber’s cellular tensegrity model, the CSK
and the ECM are assumed to form a single, synergetic
system mechanically stabilized by the cytoskeletal
prestress. This prestress is generated actively by the
cell’s contractile machinery (molecular myosin motors),
and passively by mechanical distension of the cell as it
adheres to the ECM and by swelling pressure of the
cytoplasm. Two key premises of the model are: 1) that
the prestress is primarily carried by the actin network
and intermediate filaments, and 2) that this prestress is
partly balanced by CSK-based microtubules and partly
by FAs and other cells [23]. Thus, a disturbance of this
complementary force balance would cause load transfer
between these three distinct systems that would, in turn,
affect cell deformability and alter stress-sensitive
biochemical activities at the molecular level.
The central mechanism by which prestressed
structures, including tensegrity architecture, develop
restoring stress in the presence of external loading is
primarily by geometrical rearrangement of their pre-
tensed members. The greater the pre-tension carried by
these members, the less geometrical rearrangement they
undergo under an applied load, and thus, the less
deformable (more rigid) the structure will be. This
explains why the structural stiffness increases in
proportion with the level of the prestress. To illustrate
how these mechanisms arise from the cytoskeletal
microstructure and how they predict various cell
behaviors, we present in the following section a
mathematical model of cellular tensegrity.

3. AN AFFINE TENSEGRITY MODEL OF THE
CYTOSKELETON

The affine approximation effectively combines
features of both continuum mechanics and discrete
network modeling approaches, and allows developing a
model of a complex structure without having to relay on
a detailed description of microstructural geometry or
boundary conditions. The key premise of the affine
approximation is that microstructural strains are related
to the global (continuum) strain according to the laws of
continuum mechanics. This approach allows one to
interpret mechanical properties of a discrete structure
(such as the CSK) in terms of quantities that
characterize a solid continuum (e.g., shear modulus).
These quantities can be then used to study a particular
boundary value problem in cellular mechanics using
methods of continuum mechanics. Another advantage
of the affine approach is that it yields explicit and
mathematically transparent equations that describe
various behaviors of cells and that can be easily
implemented and experimentally tested. It does not
require numerical and computationally-intensive
calculations for obtaining those predictions.
The CSK of an isolated adherent cell is modeled as a
network composed of tension-bearing cables
interconnected with compression-supporting struts [41].
The cables and struts are perfectly elastic. The structure
is anchored to a rigid substrate. The cables play the role
of actin microfilaments and intermediate filaments
whereas the struts play the role of microtubules. The
cables carry pre-tension which is partly balanced by the
compression of the struts, and partly by anchoring
forces of the substrate. All junctions are assumed
frictionless. The variational statement of equilibrium
for the model is

FME Transactions VOL. 34, No 2, 2006 ▪ 59

1 1
δ δ δ
N M
i i i i
i i
U F l Q L
= =
= − ∑ ∑ (1)
where U is the potential of external macroscopic
(continuum) stress,
i
F and
i
l are current forces and
lengths of the cables ( 1, 2, 3 ... i N = ),
i
Q and
i
L are
current forces and lengths of the struts ( 1, 2, 3 ... i M = ),
and N and M denote the total number of cables and
struts in the network, respectively. The negative sign in
(1) indicates compression. Because cables and struts
are two-force members,
i
F and
i
Q depend only on
i
l
and
i
L , respectively. The struts are slender and may
buckle under compression. In that case,
i
L indicates the
end-to-end length (chord-length) of a strut. For
mathematical simplicity, we will not make a distinction
in the following derivation between cables that describe
actin microfilaments and those that describe
intermediate filaments because they have the same
mathematical form. In other words, the first term on the
right hand side (1) can be split into two sums, one
referring to microfilaments and one referring to
intermediate filaments.

3.1. Force Balance between Actin Microfilaments,
Microtubules and the ECM
For uniform volume change, U V σ = , where σ is
an isotropic macroscopic stress and V is the current
volume of the CSK. Then, according to the affine
assumption, all lengths change in proportion to
1 3
V ,
i.e.,
1 3
i
l V ∝ , and
1 3
i
L V ∝ . Thus, it follows from (1)
that

1 1
,
3 3 3 3
N M
j j
i i
i j
Q L
N Fl M QL Fl
V V V V
σ
= =
= − = − ∑ ∑ (2)
where 〈⋅〉 indicates the average over all filament
orientations. At the reference state, the first term on the
right-hand side of (2) represents the prestress (P) borne
by the actin microfilament and intermediate filament
networks; the second term represents the part of P
balanced by microtubules (
MT
P ). If
MT
P P > , then σ
on the left-hand side of (2) indicates the part of P
balanced by the ECM (
ECM
P ). Thus,
ECM MT
P P P = − . Mechanical equilibrium of a section
of the cell (i.e., free-body diagram) demands that mean
traction (T) at the cell-ECM interface and
ECM
P are
balanced, i.e.,
A P P A P A T
MT ECM
′ ′ − = ′ ′ = ′ ) ( , (3)
where A′ and A′′ are the interfacial and the cross-
sectional areas of the cell section, respectively (Fig. 2).
(Strictly speaking, (3) holds only when the cross-
sectional surface A′′ is perpendicular to the substrate
and the force balance is in the direction of the normal to
A′′ .) Importantly, all variables in (3) are measurable,
which makes possible to evaluate individual
contributions of actin and intermediate filaments, ECM
and microtubules to force balance across the CSK. For
example, experimental data show that the contribution
of microtubules (i.e.
MT
P ) to changes in T can vary
from a few percent in highly spread cells (i.e. big A′ ),
to up to 80% in poorly spread cells (i.e. small A′ ) while
P and A′′ are maintained nearly constant [18].

Figure 2. A free-body diagram of a section of the cell.
Traction (T) (black semi-arrows) is balanced by the net
prestress P
ECM
, TA′ = P
ECM
A″, where A′ and A″ are the
interfacial and cross-sectional areas of the section,
respectively. P
ECM
equals the cytoskeletal prestress (P,
black arrows) reduced by the portion balanced by
microtubules (P
MT
, gray arrows). ECM is the extracellular
matrix; black dots are focal adhesions.

A key assumption of the tensegrity model is that
microtubules carry compression as they balance tension
in the actin network. This is qualitatively supported by
microscopic visualizations of microtubules of living
cells that show that microtubules buckle as they oppose
contraction of the actin network [56, 58]. It is not
known, however, whether the compression that causes
this buckling could balance a substantial fraction of the
contractile prestress. To investigate this possibility, we
carried out an energetic analysis of buckling of
microtubules [46]. The assumption was that energy
stored in microtubules during compression is transferred
to a flexible substrate upon disruption (i.e., chemical
depolymerization) of microtubules. Thus, an increase in
elastic energy of the substrate following disruption of
microtubules should indicate transfer of compression
energy that was stored in microtubules prior to their
disruption. Experimental data show that in spread
human airway smooth muscle cells that are optimally
stimulated with contractile agonists (i.e., the
cytoskeletal contractile prestress is maintained constant
at its optimal level), disruption of microtubules causes
the energy stored in the substrate to increase on average
by ~0.13 pJ [46]. This result was then compared with
results from a theoretical analysis based on the model of
Brodland and Gordon [2], in which the microtubules are
assumed to be slender elastic rods laterally supported by
intermediate filaments. Using the post-buckling
equilibrium theory of Euler struts [51], we estimated
that the energy stored during buckling of microtubules
is ~0.18 pJ, which is close to the measured value of
~0.13 pJ [46]. This is further evidence in support of the
idea that microtubules are intracellular compression-
bearing elements.
Taken together, the above results confirmed the
existence of a complementary force balance between
contractile forces carried by the actin network,
compression in microtubules and traction forces that

60 ▪ VOL. 34, No 2, 2006 FME Transactions
arise at the FA anchoring to the ECM, as predicted by
the tensegrity.
We next we use the affine model to show how
prestress confers structural stiffness to the CSK.

3.2. Prestress induced stiffness of the CSK

We consider distortion of the CSK due to
macroscopic (continuum) simple shear strain ( γ ). In
that case, the potential
0
U V τγ = , where τ is the
macroscopic shear stress corresponding to γ and
0
V is
the reference volume occupied by the CSK. Thus it
follows from (1) that
1 1 0
d
d 1
d d
N M
j
i
i j
i j
L
l
F Q
V
τ
γ γ
= =
| |
= − = ∑ ∑
|
\ .


0
1 d d
d d
l L
N F M Q
V γ γ
| |

|
\ .
. (4)
Taking the derivative of (4) with respect to γ and
evaluating it at the reference state (i.e., 0 γ = ), we
obtain the shear modulus (G) as follows
2
2
2
0 0
d 1 d d d
d d d
d
l F l
G N F N
V l
γ
τ
γ γ
γ
=

| |
= = + −
|
\ .

¸

0
2
2
2
d d d
d d
d
L Q L
M Q M
L
γ
γ
γ
=
(
| |
− − (
|
\ .
(
¸
(5)
To obtain quantitative predictions for G and compare
them to experimental data, we assumed a) the affine
strain field and b) that at the reference state, all
orientations of cables and struts are equally probable.
The first assumption yields l and L as functions of γ ,
i.e.,
2 2 2
0 0
(1 ) sin cos
l L
l L
γ θ ψ

= = + +
¸


1 2
2 2 2 2
(1 ) sin sin cos γ θ ψ θ
(
+ − +
¸
(6)
where ψ and θ are azimuth and latitude angles of the
spherical coordinates, and
0
l and
0
L are reference
lengths of cables and struts, respectively. The second
assumption was used to calculate the average values,
i.e.,

2 / 2
0 0
1
( , ) sin d d
2
f f
π π
θ ψ θ θ ψ
π
=
∫ ∫
, (7)
where f is any function. By combining (2) and (5)-(7),
we obtained that (for detailed derivation see [41])
) ( 2 . 0 ) ( 8 . 0
MT MT MT
P B BP P P G − + − = , (8)
where
0 0 0
/ 3 P NF l V = ,
0 0 0
/ 3
MT
P MQ L V = ,
0 0 0
(d / d ) /( / ) B F l F l = ,
0 0 0
(d / d ) /( / )
MT
B Q L Q L = ,
and subscript 0 indicates the reference state. The non-
dimensional cable stiffness B was determined from
tensile tests of isolated acto-myosin filament
interactions [27]; B ≈ 2.4 for a wide range of tensile
force. The non-dimensional strut stiffness
MT
B was
determined from buckling behavior of microtubules.
We found experimentally that in highly spread cells
0.12
MT
P P ≈ and the corresponding 0.7
MT
B ≈ −

[41].
Substituting the above values for P
MT
, B and B
MT
into
(8), we obtained that 1.2 G P ≈ . This prediction is
consistent with our previously reported experimental
data from cultured, highly spread airway smooth muscle
cells [57] (Fig. 3).
Figure 3. Cell shear modulus (G) increases linearly with
increasing cytoskeletal prestress (P). Measurements were
done in cultured human airway smooth muscle cells whose
contractility was modulated by graded doses of histamine
(constrictor) and isoproterenol (relaxant). G was measured
using the magnetic cytometry technique [13] and P was
measured by the traction cytometry technique [57]. Dots
are data ±SE; the slope of the regression line is ~1.1
(dashed line). The affine tensegrity model predicts a slope
of ~1.2 (solid line).

The model also predicts how microtubules
contribute to the overall stability of the CSK. Since
microtubules participate in balancing the overall
contractile stress, their disruption would alter this
balance and thus affect cytoskeletal shape stability.
Experimental data from cultured adherent cells show
that disruption of microtubules causes either cell
softening [38, 55], stiffening [45, 60], or no change in
stiffness [9, 52]. Using (8) and experimental data for
the contribution of microtubules to the traction at the
cell-ECM interface [18], we found that in highly spread
cells stiffness slightly increases in response to
disruption of microtubules whereas in poorly spread
cells the stiffness decreases with disruption of
microtubules [41]. This finding is quantitatively
consistent with experimental data from cultured human
airway smooth muscle cells which show that disruption
of microtubules by colchicine causes a 10% increase in
cell stiffness [45] whereas the model predicts an 8%
increase [41].
One limitation of the affine approach is the
assumption that local strains follow global strains,
which leads to overestimate of elastic moduli [cf. 40].
Since it is not very likely that local strains of the CSK
follow global strains applied to the cell, one should
expect that the affine model predicts higher values of
the elastic moduli than the measured ones. This can, in

FME Transactions VOL. 34, No 2, 2006 ▪ 61
part explain, the quantitative discrepancy between the
slopes of the G vs. P relationship predicted by the
model and the one calculated from the experimental
data (solid vs. dashed lines in Fig. 6). Furthermore, this
model cannot predict long-distance propagation of
forces in the cytoplasm that has been observed in living
cells [17, 31], since the model presumes a continuum
behavior which, in turn, implies that local loads produce
only local deformations (in continuum mechanics this is
known as the principle of local action). Nevertheless,
the affine model has been successful in describing and
predicting a number of essential mechanical properties
of living cells such as prestress induced stiffening, the
contribution of microtubules to cell stiffness, and the
load shift between the CSK and the ECM [41].

4. OTHER PESSTRESSED MODELS OF CELLULAR
MECHANICS

There are other models in the literature that consider
the effect of the prestress on cell deformability, most
notably models based on a cortical membrane network
[6,11], and a tensed cable network [42]. The former
assumes that the prestress is carried by a thin cortical
membrane that encloses pressurized liquid cytoplasm.
The latter depicts the CSK as a network composed only
of prestressed tension-bearing elements. While these
models have been successful at explaining some
particular aspects of cellular mechanics, they fail short
of describing many other mechanical behaviors that are
important for cell function. In particular, the cortical
membrane network model ignores the contribution of
the ECM to cellular mechanics, and cannot explain the
observed transmission of mechanical signals from cell
surface to the nucleus as well as to basal FAs [17, 31,
and 56]. The tensed cable model ignores the role of
compression-supporting microtubules [42].
On the other hand, all of these features (and many
others) can be explained by the cellular tensegrity model
[cf. 22, 23, 44]. Moreover, none of the other models
provide a mechanism to explain how mechanical
stresses applied to the cell surface result in force-
dependent changes in biochemistry at discrete sites
inside the cell (e.g., FAs, nuclear membrane,
microtubules), whereas tensegrity can [24]. Thus, we
believe that the cellular tensegrity model represents a
good platform for further research on the cell structure-
function relationship and mechanotransduction.
It is important to clarify that according to a
mathematical definition of tensegrity that is based on
considerations of structural stability [cf. 5], the cortical
membrane model and the tensed cable network model
also fall in the category of tensegrity structures. They
differ only by the manner in which they balance the
prestress. However, in the structural mechanics
literature, this difference is used to make a distinction
between various types of prestressed structures and
consequently, tensed cable nets and tensegrity
architecture are considered as two distinct types of
structures [53]. Although this may be understandable
from a theoretical modeling standpoint, a self-stabilized
cable net (i.e., the one that is not attached to an external
world) cannot be ‘tensed’ unless it contains at least one
compression element that balances these internal forces;
hence, the more general definition of tensegrity may be
relevant for describing real, three-dimensional structures
in the living world.

5. TENSEGRITY AND CYTOSKELETAL RHEOLOGY
AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS

During the past decade, biomechanical studies of the
cell have been focused on its rheological behavior. This
is important since the CSK is a dynamic system which
undergoes continuous remodeling and in its natural
habitat it is exposed to dynamic loads. Rheological
studies on various cell types and with various
techniques yielded two distinct features: 1) that
rheological behaviors conform to a power law in both
time ( t
α
) and frequency (
α
ω ) domains ( 0 1 α < < );
and 2) that this power law is influenced by cytoskeletal
prestress [1, 13, 36, 47]. In particular, it has been
observed that a power-law exponent (α ) decreases with
increasing cytoskeletal prestress. Since the power-law
behavior is directly related to deformability, (i.e., when
0 α → or 1 α → we have a solid-like or fluid-like
behaviors, respectively), then the observations suggest
that cells use mechanical prestress to regulate their
transition between a solid-like and a malleable
behaviors [47]. This was quite a surprising finding since
a standard paradigm was that this transition is regulated
by chemical mechanisms that govern polymerization
and depolymerization of the CSK [48].
A number of empirical and semi-empirical
mathematically sophisticated models have been offered
to explain these rheological behaviors of living cells
[3, 12, 13, 30]. All these models could provide
explanations and descriptions for the power-law
behavior. However, none can explain the observed
dependence of the cell rheological behavior on
cytoskeletal prestress. Importantly, these models have
no structural correlates in living cells, and thus cannot
predict how specific cytoskeletal structural alterations
(e.g., reorientation and rearrangement) might be related
to cellular mechanical behaviors. To address this
problem, we proposed a viscoelastic model based on
tensegrity [49]; in a tensegrity model of the type shown
in Fig. 1, elastic cables were replaced by simple Voigt
spring-dashpot units. We showed that this model can
account for the prestress-dependent rheological
behavior of the cell. However, in order to explain the
power-law behavior observed in cells, we had to assume
ad hoc a very high degree of non-homogeneity between
structural element properties in order to provide a wide
spectrum of time constants that leads to the power-law.
To provide a mechanistic explanation for the
observed rheological behavior of living cells, we
recently initiated an investigation that would link the
cytoskeletal prestress to molecular dynamics of
polymers of the CSK. Our rationale is as follows. The
rheological behavior of the CSK must necessarily
reflect dynamics of polymer chains of the CSK. The
dynamics of long chain molecules is characterized by

62 ▪ VOL. 34, No 2, 2006 FME Transactions
thermally driven fluctuations that result in a power law-
like rheological behavior [8, 21]. However in the living
CSK, polymer chains are under tension due to prestress
forces. This tension, in turn, should impact cytoskeletal
polymer dynamics in such a way that thermally-driven
fluctuations diminish with increasing tension. This
would push the cytoskeletal rheology closer to the solid-
like behavior and thus, the power-law dependence
should diminish. Our preliminary statistical models of
fluctuating polymer chains under sustained tension
yielded behaviors that are qualitatively consistent with
the observations in living cells. This leads us to believe
that this approach provides a good physical basis to
explain how cytoskeletal prestress may affect the
rheology of molecules within the CSK, and how these
molecular scale features feed back to alter the
mechanical properties of the entire cell through the
unifying mechanism of cellular tensegrity.
It is well known that living cells exhibit significant
regional differences in mechanical stiffness [16].
However, since the whole cell responds to an external
mechanical stimulus as an integrated unit, these local
units within the cytoplasm must be mechanically
connected via the CSK, possibly via the prestress-
bearing elements. A more comprehensive analytical
tensegrity model needs to be developed in order to
capture the behavior of mechanical heterogeneity and
anisotropy observed in living cells [17, 19].

6. SUMMARY

In this chapter, we have shown that the tensegrity
model is a useful framework for studying mechanics of
living adherent cells. The model identifies mechanical
prestress borne by the CSK as a key determinant of
shape stability within living cells and tissues. It also
shows how mechanical interactions between the CSK
and ECM come into play in the control of various
cellular functions. Furthermore, the model provides a
way to channel mechanical forces in distinct patterns, to
shift them between different load-bearing elements in
the CSK and ECM, and to focus them on particular sites
where biochemical remodeling may take place. If
successful, this approach may show the extent to which
prestress plays a unifying role in terms of both
determining cell rheological behavior, and orchestrating
mechanical and chemical responses within living cells.
Moreover, it will elucidate potential mechanisms that
link cell rheology to the mechanical prestress of the
CSK, from the level of molecular dynamics and
biochemical remodeling events, to the level of whole
cell mechanics.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This study is supported by NIH Grant HL33009.


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ЋЕЛИЈЕ КАО ТЕНЗЕГРИТИ СТРУКТУРЕ:
АРХИТЕКТОНСКА ОСНОВА ЦИТОСКЕЛЕТА

Димитрије Стаменовић

Механо-хемијски пренос – ћелијски одговор на
механичке напоне – одвија се преко унутарћелијске
биополимерне мреже познате као цитоскелет, која
обезбеђује механичку стабилност ћелије и
производи затезне силе. Да би обезбедио нормално
функционисање ћелије, цитоскелет мора да
прилагођава своју деформабилност биолошким
захтевима. С једне стране, у току кретања, ширења
и деобе, ћелија мора да буде веома деформабилна,
готово као флуид. С друге стране, да би одржала
структурни интегритет под дејством механичких
напрезања, ћелија мора да се понаша као чврсто
еластично тело. Пре више од две деценије, појавио
се у литературе модел цитоскелета заснован на
тензегрити архитектуру. У моделу се сматра да је
механички преднапон, који карактерише тензегрити
структуре, чинилац који одређује и регулише
деформабилност цитоскелета, Онсновна премисе
модела је да цитоскелетни преднапон настаје кроз
равнотежу и пренос механицких сила измедју
биополимерних влакана цитоскелета (актинских
микровлакана, микротубула и средњих влакана) и
спољашњих адхезионих тачака којима је ћелија
везана за екстрацелуларну матрицу и суседне ћелије.
У овом раду дат је преглед развоја у истраживању и
примени тензегрити архитектуре у ћелијској
биомеханици, укључујући механистичку основу
тензегрити модела, као и илустративни пример
којим се приказују главне особине и предвиђања
модела и њихово поређење са резултатима
добијеним из експерименаталних мерења на живим
ћелијама.

microtubules in the CSK. 1). and partly by anchoring forces of the substrate. A hallmark property that stems from this feature is that structural rigidity (stiffness) of the network is nearly proportional to the level of the prestress that it carries [44. polymers. This particular model has been commonly used in the past as a conceptual model of cellular tensegrity [7. and allows developing a model of a complex structure without having to relay on a detailed description of microstructural geometry or boundary conditions. BASIC PRINCIPLES OF TENSEGRITY ARCHITECTURE Tensegrity architecture is a building principle introduced by R. This prestress is generated actively by the cell’s contractile machinery (molecular myosin motors). a disturbance of this complementary force balance would cause load transfer between these three distinct systems that would. The cables carry pre-tension.. As distinct from other prestressed structures. The structure is anchored to a rigid substrate. affect cell deformability and alter stress-sensitive biochemical activities at the molecular level. We describe how the CSK and the ECM form a single. The key premise of the affine approximation is that microstructural strains are related to the global (continuum) strain according to the laws of continuum mechanics.g. A simple tensegrity model composed of 24 tension supporting cables (black lines). and passively by mechanical distension of the cell as it The affine approximation effectively combines features of both continuum mechanics and discrete network modeling approaches. All junctions are assumed frictionless. 49. and thus. The cables play the role of actin microfilaments and intermediate filaments whereas the struts play the role of microtubules. tensionally integrated. The cables and struts are perfectly elastic. It does not require numerical and computationally-intensive calculations for obtaining those predictions. This explains why the structural stiffness increases in proportion with the level of the prestress. Another advantage of the affine approach is that it yields explicit and mathematically transparent equations that describe various behaviors of cells and that can be easily implemented and experimentally tested. including tensegrity architecture. Ordinary elastic materials (e. the CSK and the ECM are assumed to form a single. Buckminster Fuller [15]. 2006 FME Transactions . The cables carry pre-tension which is partly balanced by the compression of the struts. No 2. develop restoring stress in the presence of external loading is primarily by geometrical rearrangement of their pretensed members. and 2) that this prestress is partly balanced by CSK-based microtubules and partly by FAs and other cells [23]. The model is attached to the extracellular matrix (ECM) at three focal adhesions (FA) (black triangles). In this article. The CSK of an isolated adherent cell is modeled as a network composed of tension-bearing cables interconnected with compression-supporting struts [41]. Fuller referred to this architecture as “tensional integrity”. 54. 43. as well as external adhesions to the ECM and to neighboring cells. and 6 compression-supporting struts (gray bars). shortly “tensegrity”. 34. The variational statement of equilibrium for the model is 58 ▪ VOL. in turn. To illustrate how these mechanisms arise from the cytoskeletal microstructure and how they predict various cell behaviors. the less geometrical rearrangement they undergo under an applied load. shear modulus). The cellular tensegrity model is a useful description of cellular mechanics because it provides a mechanism to link mechanics to structure at the molecular level. In the Ingber’s cellular tensegrity model.g. 3. These quantities can be then used to study a particular boundary value problem in cellular mechanics using methods of continuum mechanics. AN AFFINE TENSEGRITY MODEL OF THE CYTOSKELETON Figure 1. adheres to the ECM and by swelling pressure of the cytoplasm. in addition to helping to explain how mechanical signals are transduced into biochemical responses within living cells and tissues. 54]. and metals) by contrast. Thus.. This approach allows one to interpret mechanical properties of a discrete structure (such as the CSK) in terms of quantities that characterize a solid continuum (e. 59]. in tensegrity architecture the prestress in the cable network is balanced by compression of internal elements called struts (Fig. which play the role of microtubules. It describes a class of discrete network structures that maintain their structural integrity because of tensile prestress in their cable-like structural members. The greater the pre-tension carried by these members. The central mechanism by which prestressed structures. system and how distinct biopolymers of the CSK may bear either tensile or compressive loads inside the cell. 2. which play the role of actin microfilaments. synergetic system mechanically stabilized by the cytoskeletal prestress. the less deformable (more rigid) the structure will be. Two key premises of the model are: 1) that the prestress is primarily carried by the actin network and intermediate filaments. require no such prestress. we present in the following section a mathematical model of cellular tensegrity. we review progress in the area of cellular tensegrity. rubber.

3 . At the reference state.e. respectively. free-body diagram) demands that mean traction (T) at the cell-ECM interface and PECM are balanced.. Qi and Li are current forces and lengths of the struts ( i = 1. U = σ V . 58]. In other words. Using the post-buckling equilibrium theory of Euler struts [51]. according to the affine assumption. respectively. i. To investigate this possibility.e. 34.e. Experimental data show that in spread human airway smooth muscle cells that are optimally stimulated with contractile agonists (i. A free-body diagram of a section of the cell. If P > PMT . we carried out an energetic analysis of buckling of microtubules [46]. (3) holds only when the crosssectional surface A′′ is perpendicular to the substrate and the force balance is in the direction of the normal to A′′ . Microtubules and the ECM example. It is not known. disruption of microtubules causes the energy stored in the substrate to increase on average by ~0. balanced by the ECM ( PECM ).) Importantly. ECM and microtubules to force balance across the CSK. an increase in elastic energy of the substrate following disruption of microtubules should indicate transfer of compression energy that was stored in microtubules prior to their disruption.. where σ is an isotropic macroscopic stress and V is the current volume of the CSK. in which the microtubules are assumed to be slender elastic rods laterally supported by intermediate filaments. Figure 2. all lengths change in proportion to V 1 3 . gray arrows). Thus. Mechanical equilibrium of a section of the cell (i. we will not make a distinction in the following derivation between cables that describe actin microfilaments and those that describe intermediate filaments because they have the same mathematical form.. 3V 3V i =1 3V j =1 3V N (2) where 〈⋅〉 indicates the average over all filament orientations. (3) where A′ and A′′ are the interfacial and the crosssectional areas of the cell section. Li indicates the end-to-end length (chord-length) of a strut.13 pJ [46].e. For uniform volume change.e.. where A′ and A″ are the interfacial and cross-sectional areas of the section. In that case. PECM = P − PMT .18 pJ. Taken together. one referring to microfilaments and one referring to intermediate filaments.. experimental data show that the contribution of microtubules (i. it follows from (1) that σ=∑ Fi li M Q j L j N Fl M QL −∑ = − . i. This is qualitatively supported by microscopic visualizations of microtubules of living cells that show that microtubules buckle as they oppose contraction of the actin network [56.δU = ∑ Fi δli − ∑ Qi δLi i =1 i =1 N M (1) where U is the potential of external macroscopic (continuum) stress.13 pJ [46]. ECM is the extracellular matrix. black arrows) reduced by the portion balanced by microtubules (PMT. all variables in (3) are measurable. to up to 80% in poorly spread cells (i. Force Balance between Actin Microfilaments.3 . PMT ) to changes in T can vary from a few percent in highly spread cells (i. For mathematical simplicity.. li ∝ V 1 3 . and Li ∝ V 1 3 . The struts are slender and may buckle under compression. 2. 2. This result was then compared with results from a theoretical analysis based on the model of Brodland and Gordon [2].. chemical depolymerization) of microtubules. TA′ = PECMA″. the first term on the right hand side (1) can be split into two sums. big A′ ). the second term represents the part of P balanced by microtubules ( PMT ). then σ on the left-hand side of (2) indicates the part of P Thus. 3. This is further evidence in support of the idea that microtubules are intracellular compressionbearing elements... the first term on the right-hand side of (2) represents the prestress (P) borne by the actin microfilament and intermediate filament networks. and N and M denote the total number of cables and struts in the network. which is close to the measured value of ~0. 2). For FME Transactions A key assumption of the tensegrity model is that microtubules carry compression as they balance tension in the actin network. respectively. M ). (Strictly speaking. small A′ ) while P and A′′ are maintained nearly constant [18]. 2006 ▪ 59 . the above results confirmed the existence of a complementary force balance between contractile forces carried by the actin network. the cytoskeletal contractile prestress is maintained constant at its optimal level). N ).e. Then. however. compression in microtubules and traction forces that VOL. PECM equals the cytoskeletal prestress (P. The negative sign in (1) indicates compression. The assumption was that energy stored in microtubules during compression is transferred to a flexible substrate upon disruption (i. Traction (T) (black semi-arrows) is balanced by the net prestress PECM. we estimated that the energy stored during buckling of microtubules is ~0. TA′ = PECM A′′ = ( P − PMT ) A′′ . which makes possible to evaluate individual contributions of actin and intermediate filaments.e. Fi and li are current forces and lengths of the cables ( i = 1. whether the compression that causes this buckling could balance a substantial fraction of the contractile prestress. Thus.e. Because cables and struts are two-force members. No 2.1. respectively (Fig. Fi and Qi depend only on li and Li . black dots are focal adhesions.

l L  = = (1 + γ )2 sin 2 θ cos 2 ψ + l0 L0  +(1 − γ ) 2 sin 2 θ sin 2 ψ + cos2 θ   12 Figure 3. We next we use the affine model to show how prestress confers structural stiffness to the CSK. One limitation of the affine approach is the assumption that local strains follow global strains. This can. and l0 and L0 are reference lengths of cables and struts. (8) P = NF0 l0 / 3V0 . 3. highly spread airway smooth muscle cells [57] (Fig. the potential U = V0τγ . 2π 0 0 (7) where f is any function.8( P − PMT ) + 0. G was measured using the magnetic cytometry technique [13] and P was measured by the traction cytometry technique [57].2. one should expect that the affine model predicts higher values of the elastic moduli than the measured ones. which leads to overestimate of elastic moduli [cf. the slope of the regression line is ~1.arise at the FA anchoring to the ECM. γ = 0 ).2 (solid line).. and subscript 0 indicates the reference state. where B = (dF / dl )0 /( F0 / l0 ) . as predicted by the tensegrity. The second assumption was used to calculate the average values. we found that in highly spread cells stiffness slightly increases in response to disruption of microtubules whereas in poorly spread cells the stiffness decreases with disruption of microtubules [41]. f = 1 2π π / 2 ∫ ∫ f (θ . Experimental data from cultured adherent cells show that disruption of microtubules causes either cell softening [38. In that case. Prestress induced stiffness of the CSK We consider distortion of the CSK due to macroscopic (continuum) simple shear strain ( γ ).1 (dashed line). The non-dimensional strut stiffness BMT was determined from buckling behavior of microtubules. No 2. stiffening [45. Since it is not very likely that local strains of the CSK follow global strains applied to the cell. The first assumption yields l and L as functions of γ . i.12 P and the corresponding BMT ≈ −0. respectively. 3). or no change in stiffness [9. 34. i. Dots are data ±SE. 40]. Measurements were done in cultured human airway smooth muscle cells whose contractility was modulated by graded doses of histamine (constrictor) and isoproterenol (relaxant). Using (8) and experimental data for the contribution of microtubules to the traction at the cell-ECM interface [18].2( BP − BMT PMT ) . This prediction is consistent with our previously reported experimental data from cultured. Since microtubules participate in balancing the overall contractile stress. We found experimentally that in highly spread cells PMT ≈ 0.7 [41]. we obtained that G ≈ 1. B and BMT into (8).e.e. This finding is quantitatively consistent with experimental data from cultured human airway smooth muscle cells which show that disruption of microtubules by colchicine causes a 10% increase in cell stiffness [45] whereas the model predicts an 8% increase [41]. Substituting the above values for PMT. The nondimensional cable stiffness B was determined from tensile tests of isolated acto-myosin filament 60 ▪ VOL. their disruption would alter this balance and thus affect cytoskeletal shape stability. Cell shear modulus (G) increases linearly with increasing cytoskeletal prestress (P). 55]. we obtained that (for detailed derivation see [41]) G = 0. dγ dγ   (4) Taking the derivative of (4) with respect to γ and evaluating it at the reference state (i. τ= dL j  1  N dli M − ∑ Qj  ∑ Fi = V0  i =1 dγ j =1 dγ  1 V0 dl dL   −M Q N F .. all orientations of cables and struts are equally probable. (6) where ψ and θ are azimuth and latitude angles of the spherical coordinates. we assumed a) the affine strain field and b) that at the reference state.ψ ) sin θ dθ dψ . 60]. BMT = (dQ / dL)0 /(Q0 / L0 ) . B ≈ 2. where τ is the macroscopic shear stress corresponding to γ and V0 is the reference volume occupied by the CSK. Thus it follows from (1) that interactions [27]. PMT = MQ0 L0 / 3V0 . 52]. we obtain the shear modulus (G) as follows G= 2 dτ 1  d 2l dF  dl  = N F 2 + N   − dγ γ =0 V0  dl  dγ  dγ  −M Q d2 L dγ 2 −M dQ  dL    dL  dγ  2     (5) γ =0 To obtain quantitative predictions for G and compare them to experimental data. The affine tensegrity model predicts a slope of ~1.4 for a wide range of tensile force.e. 2006 The model also predicts how microtubules contribute to the overall stability of the CSK.2 P .. By combining (2) and (5)-(7). in FME Transactions .

it has been observed that a power-law exponent ( α ) decreases with increasing cytoskeletal prestress. in a tensegrity model of the type shown in Fig. Thus. this model cannot predict long-distance propagation of forces in the cytoplasm that has been observed in living cells [17. since the model presumes a continuum behavior which. a self-stabilized cable net (i.e.. in the structural mechanics literature. No 2. the cortical membrane model and the tensed cable network model also fall in the category of tensegrity structures. reorientation and rearrangement) might be related to cellular mechanical behaviors. However. Although this may be understandable from a theoretical modeling standpoint. A number of empirical and semi-empirical mathematically sophisticated models have been offered to explain these rheological behaviors of living cells [3. OTHER PESSTRESSED MODELS OF CELLULAR MECHANICS world) cannot be ‘tensed’ unless it contains at least one compression element that balances these internal forces. in turn. (i. the quantitative discrepancy between the slopes of the G vs. the one that is not attached to an external FME Transactions VOL. when α → 0 or α → 1 we have a solid-like or fluid-like behaviors.. 34. Our rationale is as follows. Nevertheless. 2006 ▪ 61 . 47]. the more general definition of tensegrity may be relevant for describing real. in order to explain the power-law behavior observed in cells. 22..part explain. the affine model has been successful in describing and predicting a number of essential mechanical properties of living cells such as prestress induced stiffening. none of the other models provide a mechanism to explain how mechanical stresses applied to the cell surface result in forcedependent changes in biochemistry at discrete sites inside the cell (e.e. 4. Moreover. 13. This is important since the CSK is a dynamic system which undergoes continuous remodeling and in its natural habitat it is exposed to dynamic loads. 13. the cortical membrane network model ignores the contribution of the ECM to cellular mechanics. Importantly. 44]. 23. However. Furthermore. The rheological behavior of the CSK must necessarily reflect dynamics of polymer chains of the CSK. 1. dashed lines in Fig. The latter depicts the CSK as a network composed only of prestressed tension-bearing elements. 30]. 36. most notably models based on a cortical membrane network [6. biomechanical studies of the cell have been focused on its rheological behavior. Rheological studies on various cell types and with various techniques yielded two distinct features: 1) that rheological behaviors conform to a power law in both time ( tα ) and frequency ( ωα ) domains ( 0 < α < 1 ). hence. we believe that the cellular tensegrity model represents a good platform for further research on the cell structurefunction relationship and mechanotransduction. they fail short of describing many other mechanical behaviors that are important for cell function. While these models have been successful at explaining some particular aspects of cellular mechanics. We showed that this model can account for the prestress-dependent rheological behavior of the cell. and 56].11]. the contribution of microtubules to cell stiffness. we had to assume ad hoc a very high degree of non-homogeneity between structural element properties in order to provide a wide spectrum of time constants that leads to the power-law. In particular. implies that local loads produce only local deformations (in continuum mechanics this is known as the principle of local action). nuclear membrane. respectively). The former assumes that the prestress is carried by a thin cortical membrane that encloses pressurized liquid cytoplasm. 6). these models have no structural correlates in living cells. microtubules). elastic cables were replaced by simple Voigt spring-dashpot units. However. To address this problem. The dynamics of long chain molecules is characterized by There are other models in the literature that consider the effect of the prestress on cell deformability. this difference is used to make a distinction between various types of prestressed structures and consequently. we recently initiated an investigation that would link the cytoskeletal prestress to molecular dynamics of polymers of the CSK. P relationship predicted by the model and the one calculated from the experimental data (solid vs. we proposed a viscoelastic model based on tensegrity [49]. then the observations suggest that cells use mechanical prestress to regulate their transition between a solid-like and a malleable behaviors [47]. three-dimensional structures in the living world.. Since the power-law behavior is directly related to deformability. and 2) that this power law is influenced by cytoskeletal prestress [1. It is important to clarify that according to a mathematical definition of tensegrity that is based on considerations of structural stability [cf. 12. and cannot explain the observed transmission of mechanical signals from cell surface to the nucleus as well as to basal FAs [17. They differ only by the manner in which they balance the prestress. 31. On the other hand. all of these features (and many others) can be explained by the cellular tensegrity model [cf. In particular. and thus cannot predict how specific cytoskeletal structural alterations (e. 31]. none can explain the observed dependence of the cell rheological behavior on cytoskeletal prestress.g. 5]. TENSEGRITY AND CYTOSKELETAL RHEOLOGY AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS During the past decade. and a tensed cable network [42]. This was quite a surprising finding since a standard paradigm was that this transition is regulated by chemical mechanisms that govern polymerization and depolymerization of the CSK [48]. and the load shift between the CSK and the ECM [41]. FAs.g. whereas tensegrity can [24]. 5. To provide a mechanistic explanation for the observed rheological behavior of living cells. tensed cable nets and tensegrity architecture are considered as two distinct types of structures [53]. The tensed cable model ignores the role of compression-supporting microtubules [42]. All these models could provide explanations and descriptions for the power-law behavior.

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