We present a novel microfabricated platform to culture cells within arrays of micrometer-scale three-dimensional (3D) extracellular matrix scaffolds (microgels). These microscale cultures eliminate diffusion barriers that are intrinsic to traditional 3D culture systems (macrogels) and enable uniform cytokine stimulation of the entire culture population, as well as allow immunolabeling, imaging and population-based biochemical assays across the relatively coplanar microgels. Examining early signaling associated with hepatocyte growth factor (HGF)-mediated scattering and tubulogenesis of MDCK cells revealed that 3D culture modulates cellular responses both through dimensionality and altered stimulation rates. Comparing responses in 2D culture, microgels and macrogels demonstrated that HGF-induced ERK signaling was driven by the dynamics of stimulation and not by whether cells were in a 2D or 3D environment, and that this ERK signaling was equally important for HGF-induced cell scattering on 2D substrates and tubulogenesis in 3D. By contrast, we discovered a specific HGF-induced increase in myosin expression leading to sustained downregulation of myosin activity that occurred only within 3D contexts and was required for 3D tubulogenesis but not 2D scattering. Interestingly, although absent in cells on collagen-coated plates, downregulation of myosin activity also occurred for cells on collagen gels, but was transient and mediated by a combination of myosin dephosphorylation and enhanced myosin expression. Furthermore, upregulating myosin activity via siRNA targeted to a myosin phosphatase did not attenuate scattering in 2D but did inhibit tubulogenesis in 3D. Together, these results demonstrate that cellular responses to soluble cues in 3D culture are regulated by both rates of stimulation and by matrix dimensionality, and highlight the importance of decoupling these effects to identify early signals relevant to cellular function in 3D environments.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Cell Biology