Mechanical heterogeneity in a soft biomaterial niche controls BMP2 signaling


  • E. Brauer
  • A. Herrera
  • R. Fritsche-Guenther
  • S. Görlitz
  • H. Leemhuis
  • P. Knaus
  • J.A. Kirwan
  • G.N. Duda
  • A. Petersen


  • Biomaterials


  • Biomaterials 309: 122614


  • The extracellular matrix is known to impact cell function during regeneration by modulating growth factor signaling. However, how the mechanical properties and structure of biomaterials can be used to optimize the cellular response to growth factors is widely neglected. Here, we engineered a macroporous biomaterial to study cellular signaling in environments that mimic the mechanical stiffness but also the mechanical heterogeneity of native extracellular matrix. We found that the mechanical interaction of cells with the heterogeneous and non- linear deformation properties of soft matrices (E <5 kPa) enhances BMP-2 growth factor signaling with high relevance for tissue regeneration. In contrast, this effect is absent in homogeneous hydrogels that are often used to study cell responses to mechanical cues. Live cell imaging and in silico finite element modeling further revealed that a subpopulation of highly active, fast migrating cells is responsible for most of the material deformation, while a second, less active population experiences this deformation as an extrinsic mechanical stimulation. At an overall low cell density, the active cell population dominates the process, suggesting that it plays a particularly important role in early tissue healing scenarios where cells invade tissue defects or implanted biomaterials. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that the mechanical heterogeneity of the natural extracellular matrix environment plays an important role in triggering regeneration by endogenously acting growth factors. This suggests the inclusion of such mechanical complexity as a design parameter in future biomaterials, in addition to established parameters such as mechanical stiffness and stress relaxation.