Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are a potential source for the construction of tissue-engineered vascular grafts. However, how vascular mechanical forces regulate the genetic reprogramming in MSCs is not well understood. Mechanical strain in the vascular wall is anisotropic and mainly in the circumferential direction. We have shown that cyclic uniaxial strain on elastic substrates causes the cells to align perpendicularly to the strain axis, which is different from that in the vascular wall. To simulate the vascular cell alignment and investigate the anisotropic mechanical sensing by MSCs, we used soft lithography to create elastomeric membranes with parallel microgrooves. This topographic pattern kept MSCs aligned parallel to the strain axis, and the cells were subjected to 5% cyclic uniaxial strain (1 Hz) for 2–4 days. DNA microarray analysis revealed global gene expression changes, including an increase in the smooth muscle marker calponin 1, decreases in cartilage matrix markers, and alterations in cell signaling (e.g., down-regulation of the Jagged1 signaling pathway). In addition, uniaxial strain increased MSC proliferation. However, when micropatterning was used to align cells perpendicularly to the axis of mechanical strain, the changes of some genes were diminished, and MSC proliferation was not affected. This study suggests that mechanical strain plays an important role in MSC differentiation and proliferation, and that the effects of mechanotransduction depend on the orientation of cells with respect to the strain axis. The differential cellular responses to the anisotropic mechanical environment have important implications in cardiovascular development, tissue remodeling, and tissue engineering
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