Synergy between interstitial flow and VEGF directs capillary morphogenesis in vitro through a gradient amplification mechanism

Cell organization is largely orchestrated by extracellular gradients of morphogenetic proteins. VEGF, an essential factor for capillary formation, is stored in the extracellular matrix, but the mechanisms by which it and other matrix-bound morphogens are mobilized to form spatial gradients are poorly understood. Here, we suggest an efficient mechanism for morphogen gradient generation by subtle biophysical forces in an in vitro model of capillary morphogenesis. Using a fibrin-bound VEGF variant that is released proteolytically to mimic the in vivo situation, we report that low levels of interstitial flow act synergistically with VEGF to drive endothelial organization, whereas each stimulus alone has very little effect. To help account for this synergy, we show how these slow flows can bias the distribution of cell-secreted proteases, which leads, interestingly, to the creation of an increasing VEGF gradient relative to the cell and skewed in the direction of flow. In contrast, diffusion alone can only account for symmetric, decreasing autocrine gradients. Indeed, branching of capillary structures was biased in the direction of flow only with the combination of VEGF and flow. This work thus demonstrates a general mechanism of morphogen gradient generation and amplification by small ubiquitous mechanical forces that are known to exist in vivo.

Published in:
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 102, 44, 15779-84

 Record created 2006-08-09, last modified 2018-03-17

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