Nanorheology of living cells measured by AFM-based force–distance curves

Pablo D. Garcia, Carlos R. Guerrero and Ricardo Garcia

Abstract: Mechanobiology aims to establish functional relationships between the mechanical state of a living a cell
and its physiology. The acquisition of force–distance curves with an AFM is by far the dominant method to characterize the nanomechanical properties of living cells. However, theoretical simulations have shown that the contact mechanics models used to determine the Young’s modulus from a force–distance curve could be off by a factor 5 from its expected value. The semi-quantitative character arises from the lack of a theory that integrates the AFM data, a realistic viscoelastic model of a cell and its finitethickness. Here, we develop a method to determine the mechanical response of a cell from a force–distance curve. The method incorporates bottom-effect corrections, a power-law rheology model and the deformation history of the cell. It transforms the experimental data into viscoelastic parameters of the cell as a function of the indentation frequency. The quantitative agreement obtained between the experiments performed on living fibroblast cells and the analytical theory supports the use of force–distance curves to measure the nanorheological properties of cells.

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