Mechanical cues influence a wide range of cellular behaviors including motility, differentiation, and tumorigenesis. Although previous studies elucidated the role of specific players such as ion channels and focal adhesions as local mechanosensors, the investigation of how mechanical perturbations propagate across the cell is necessary to understand the spatial coordination of cellular processes. Here we quantify the magnitude and timing of intracellular stress propagation, using atomic force microscopy and particle tracking by defocused fluorescence microscopy. The apical cell surface is locally perturbed by atomic force microscopy cantilever indentation, and distal displacements are measured in three dimensions by tracking integrin-bound fluorescent particles. We observe an immediate response and slower equilibration, occurring over times that increase with distance from perturbation. This distance-dependent equilibration occurs over several seconds and can be eliminated by disruption of the actin cytoskeleton. Our experimental results are not explained by traditional viscoelastic models of cell mechanics, but they are consistent with predictions from poroelastic models that include both cytoskeletal deformation and flow of the cytoplasm. Our combined atomic force microscopy-particle tracking measurements provide direct evidence of slow, distance-dependent dissipative stress propagation in response to external mechanical cues and offer new insights into mechanical models and physiological behaviors of adherent cells.
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