Macro- to microscale strain transfer in fibrous tissues is heterogeneous and tissue-specific

Woojin M. Han, Su Jin Heo, Tristan P. Driscoll, Lachlan J. Smith, Robert L. Mauck, Dawn M. Elliott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Mechanical deformation applied at the joint or tissue level is transmitted through the macroscale extracellular matrix to the microscale local matrix, where it is transduced to cells within these tissues and modulates tissue growth, maintenance, and repair. The objective of this study was to investigate how applied tissue strain is transferred through the local matrix to the cell and nucleus in meniscus, tendon, and the annulus fibrosus, as well as in stem cell-seeded scaffolds engineered to reproduce the organized microstructure of these native tissues. To carry out this study, we developed a custom confocal microscope-mounted tensile testing device and simultaneously monitored strain across multiple length scales. Results showed that mean strain was heterogeneous and significantly attenuated, but coordinated, at the local matrix level in native tissues (35-70% strain attenuation). Conversely, freshly seeded scaffolds exhibited very direct and uniform strain transfer from the tissue to the local matrix level (15-25% strain attenuation). In addition, strain transfer from local matrix to cells and nuclei was dependent on fiber orientation and tissue type. Histological analysis suggested that different domains exist within these fibrous tissues, with most of the tissue being fibrous, characterized by an aligned collagen structure and elongated cells, and other regions being proteoglycan (PG)-rich, characterized by a dense accumulation of PGs and rounder cells. In meniscus, the observed heterogeneity in strain transfer correlated strongly with cellular morphology, where rounder cells located in PG-rich microdomains were shielded from deformation, while elongated cells in fibrous microdomains deformed readily. Collectively, these findings suggest that different tissues utilize distinct strain-attenuating mechanisms according to their unique structure and cellular phenotype, and these differences likely alter the local biologic response of such tissues and constructs in response to mechanical perturbation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)807-817
Number of pages11
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - 6 Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


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