A mathematical model of the coupled mechanisms of cell adhesion, contraction and spreading.
Recent research has shown that cell spreading is highly dependent on the contractility of its cytoskeleton and the mechanical properties of the environment it is located in. The dynamics of such process is critical for the development of tissue engineering strategy but is also a key player in wound contraction, tissue maintenance and angiogenesis. To better understand the underlying physics of such phenomena, the paper describes a mathematical formulation of cell spreading and contraction that couples the processes of stress fiber formation, protrusion growth through actin polymerization at the cell edge and dynamics of cross-membrane protein (integrins) enabling cell-substrate attachment. The evolving cell's cytoskeleton is modeled as a mixture of fluid, proteins and filaments that can exchange mass and generate contraction. In particular, besides self-assembling into stress fibers, actin monomers able to polymerize into an actin meshwork at the cell's boundary in order to push the membrane forward and generate protrusion. These processes are possible via the development of cell-substrate attachment complexes that arise from the mechano-sensitive equilibrium of membrane proteins, known as integrins. After deriving the governing equation driving the dynamics of cell evolution and spreading, we introduce a numerical solution based on the extended finite element method, combined with a level set formulation. Numerical simulations show that the proposed model is able to capture the dependency of cell spreading and contraction on substrate stiffness and chemistry. The very good agreement between model predictions and experimental observations suggests that mechanics plays a strong role into the coupled mechanisms of contraction, adhesion and spreading of adherent cells.