The stress in the endothelial cells induced by blood flow depends on the waviness of the blood-endothelium interface and the slopes at the junctions of neighboring cells in the direction of flow. The height and slope in the third dimension of the living endothelial cells cannot be measured by ordinary optical and electron microscopy. Here we show that interference microscopy meets the challenge. We measured the geometry of cultured confluent human vascular endothelial cells in a flow, and we found that in a normal section parallel to the flow, the absolute values of the surface slopes at the cell junctions were 0.70 +/- 0.02 (SE) and 0.80 +/- 0.02 (SE) at the leading and trailing edges of the cells, respectively, in a culture medium of osmolarity 310 mosM with a shear stress of approximately 1 N/m2. A reversal of the flow direction led to a reversal of the slope pattern. An increase in medium osmolarity above 310 mosM induced an initial decrease in the slopes followed by a return to normal, whereas a decrease in the osmolarity had a reversed effect. These results, in light of our previous theoretical analyses, show that tensile stress exists in the endothelial cell membrane, and that the mechanism of tension accumulation is a reality. The accumulation is not 100% because the membranes are not smooth at the cell junctions
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