Modelling the mechanical cross-talk between cells and fibrous extracellular matrix using hybrid cellular Potts and molecular dynamics methods

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The mechanical interaction between cells and the extracellular matrix (ECM) is fundamental to coordinate collective cell behavior in multicellular tissues. Relating individual cell-level mechanics to tissue-scale collective behavior is an outstanding challenge which cell-based models such as the cellular Potts model (CPM) are well-positioned to address. These models generally represent the ECM with mean-field approaches, which assume substrate homogeneity. This assumption breaks down with fibrous ECM, which has non-trivial structure and mechanics. Here, we extend the CPM with a bead-spring chain model of ECM fiber networks modelled using molecular dynamics. We model contractile cells pulling with discrete focal adhesion-like sites on the ECM fiber network, and demonstrate agreement with experimental spatiotemporal fiber densification and displacement. We show that contractile cell forces propagate over multiple cell radii scaling with power law exponent of ≈ −0.5 typical of viscoelastic ECM. Further, we use in silico atomic force microscopy to measure local cell-induced network stiffening consistent with experiments. Our model lays the foundation to investigate how local and long-ranged cell-ECM mechanobiology contributes to multicellular morphogenesis.

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