Cell movement is guided by the rigidity of the substrate.
Directional cell locomotion is critical in many physiological processes, including morphogenesis, the immune response, and wound healing. It is well known that in these processes cell movements can be guided by gradients of various chemical signals. In this study, we demonstrate that cell movement can also be guided by purely physical interactions at the cell-substrate interface. We cultured National Institutes of Health 3T3 fibroblasts on flexible polyacrylamide sheets coated with type I collagen. A transition in rigidity was introduced in the central region of the sheet by a discontinuity in the concentration of the bis-acrylamide cross-linker. Cells approaching the transition region from the soft side could easily migrate across the boundary, with a concurrent increase in spreading area and traction forces. In contrast, cells migrating from the stiff side turned around or retracted as they reached the boundary. We call this apparent preference for a stiff substrate "durotaxis." In addition to substrate rigidity, we discovered that cell movement could also be guided by manipulating the flexible substrate to produce mechanical strains in the front or rear of a polarized cell. We conclude that changes in tissue rigidity and strain could play an important controlling role in a number of normal and pathological processes involving cell locomotion.