Cancer deaths are primarily caused by metastases, not by the parent tumor. During metastasis, malignant cells detach from the parent tumor, and spread through the circulatory system to invade new tissues and organs. The physical-chemical mechanisms and parameters within the cellular microenvironment that initiate the onset of metastasis, however, are not understood. Here we show that human colon carcinoma (HCT-8) cells can exhibit a dissociative, metastasis-like phenotype (MLP) in vitro when cultured on substrates with appropriate mechanical stiffness. This rather remarkable phenotype is observed when HCT-8 cells are cultured on gels with intermediate-stiffness (physiologically relevant 21-47 kPa), but not on very soft (1 kPa) and very stiff (3.6 GPa) substrates. The cell-cell adhesion molecule E-Cadherin, a metastasis hallmark, decreases 4.73 ± 1.43 times on cell membranes in concert with disassociation. Both specific and nonspecific cell adhesion decrease once the cells have disassociated. After reculturing the disassociated cells on fresh substrates, they retain the disassociated phenotype regardless of substrate stiffness. Inducing E-Cadherin overexpression in MLP cells only partially reverses theMLP phenotype in a minority population of the dissociated cells. This important experiment reveals that E-Cadherin does notplay a significant role in the upstream regulation of the mechanosensing cascade. Our results indicate, during culture on theappropriate mechanical microenvironment, HCT-8 cells undergo a stable cell-state transition with increased in vitro metastasis- like characteristics as compared to parent cells grown on standard, very stiff tissue culture dishes. Nuclear staining reveals that a large nuclear deformation (major/minor axis ratio, 2:5) occurs in HCT-8 cells when cells are cultured on polystyrene substrates, but it is markedly reduced (ratio, 1:3) in cells grown on 21 kPa substrates, suggesting the cells are experiencing different intracellular forces when grown on stiff as compared to soft substrates. Furthermore, MLP can be inhibited by blebbistatin,which inactivates myosin II activity and relaxes intracellular forces. This novel finding suggests that the onset of metastasis may, in part, be linked to the intracellular forces and the mechanical microenvironment of the tumor.
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