Substrate elasticity modulates the responsiveness of mesenchymal stem cells to commitment cues
Fate choices of stem cells are regulated in response to a complex array of biochemical and physical signals from their microenvironmental niche. Whereas the molecular composition and the role of mechanical niche cues have been extensively studied, relatively little is known about how both effectors act in concert to modulate stem cell fate. Here we utilized a recently developed artificial niche microarray platform to investigate whether the stiffness of a cell culture substrate influences how niche signaling factors exert their role on adipogenic differentiation of human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC). We found that substrate stiffness imposes a strictly non-overlapping range of differentiation, highlighting the dominance of physical over the biochemical factors. At a given stiffness, a significant protein-dependent effect on adipogenic differentiation was observed. Furthermore, we show that synergistic interactions between proteins can also be driven by the substrate stiffness. Our results thus highlight the importance of considering the mechanical properties of a target tissue when investigating biochemical niche signals in vitro.