Understanding how physical signals guide biological processes requires qualitative and quantitative knowledge of the mechanical forces generated and sensed by cells in a physiologically realistic three-dimensional (3D) context. Here, we used computational modeling and engineered epithelial tissues of precise geometry to define the experimental parameters that are required to measure directly the mechanical stress profile of 3D tissues embedded within native type I collagen. We found that to calculate the stresses accurately in these settings, we had to account for mechanical heterogeneities within the matrix, which we visualized and quantified using confocal reflectance and atomic force microscopy. Using this technique, we were able to obtain traction forces at the epithelium-matrix interface, and to resolve and quantify patterns of mechanical stress throughout the surrounding matrix. We discovered that whereas single cells generate tension by contracting and pulling on the matrix, the contraction of multicellular tissues can also push against the matrix, causing emergent compression. Furthermore, tissue geometry defines the spatial distribution of mechanical stress across the epithelium, which communicates mechanically over distances spanning hundreds of micrometers. Spatially resolved mechanical maps can provide insight into the types and magnitudes of physical parameters that are sensed and interpreted by multicellular tissues during normal and pathological processes.
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