The viscoelasticity of adherent cells follows a single power-law with distinct local variations within a single cell and across cell lines

Juan G. Sanchez Francisco M. Espinosa Ruben Miguez  and Ricardo Garcia *
Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid, CSIC, c/Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 3, 28049 Madrid, Spain. E-mail:

Received 16th June 2021 , Accepted 1st September 2021

First published on 28th September 2021



AFM-based force–distance curves are commonly used to characterize the nanomechanical properties of live cells. The transformation of these curves into nanomechanical properties requires the development of contact mechanics models. Spatially-resolved force–distance curves involving 1 to 2 μm deformations were obtained on HeLa and NIH 3T3 (fibroblast) cells. An elastic and two viscoelastic models were used to describe the experimental force–distance curves. The best agreement was obtained by applying a contact mechanics model that accounts for the geometry of the contact and the finite-thickness of the cell and assumes a single power-law dependence with time. Our findings show the shortcomings of elastic and semi-infinite viscoelastic models to characterize the mechanical response of a mammalian cell under micrometer-scale deformations. The parameters of the 3D power-law viscoelastic model, compressive modulus and fluidity exponent showed local variations within a single cell and across the two cell lines. The corresponding nanomechanical maps revealed structures that were not visible in the AFM topographic maps.


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