Cells actively produce contractile forces for a variety of processes including cytokinesis and motility. Contractility is known to rely on myosin II motors which convert chemical energy from ATP hydrolysis into forces on actin filaments. However, the basic physical principles of cell contractility remain poorly understood. We reconstitute contractility in a simplified model system of purified F-actin, muscle myosin II motors, and α-actinin cross-linkers. We show that contractility occurs above a threshold motor concentration and within a window of cross-linker concentrations. We also quantify the pore size of the bundled networks and find contractility to occur at a critical distance between the bundles. We propose a simple mechanism of contraction based on myosin filaments pulling neighboring bundles together into an aggregated structure. Observations of this reconstituted system in both bulk and low-dimensional geometries show that the contracting gels pull on and deform their surface with a contractile force of ∼1 μN, or ∼100 pN per F-actin bundle. Cytoplasmic extracts contracting in identical environments show a similar behavior and dependence on myosin as the reconstituted system. Our results suggest that cellular contractility can be sensitively regulated by tuning the (local) activity of molecular motors and the cross-linker density and binding affinity.
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