Restoration of lung homeostasis following injury requires efficient wound healing by the epithelium. The mechanisms of lung epithelial wound healing include cell spreading and migration into the wounded area and later cell proliferation. We hypothesized that mechanical properties of cells vary near the wound edge, and this may provide cues to direct cell migration. To investigate this hypothesis, we measured variations in the stiffness of migrating human bronchial epithelial cells (16HBE cells) ∼2 h after applying a scratch wound. We used atomic force microscopy (AFM) in contact mode to measure the cell stiffness in 1.5-μm square regions at different locations relative to the wound edge. In regions far from the wound edge (>2.75 mm), there was substantial variation in the elastic modulus in specific cellular regions, but the median values measured from multiple fields were consistently lower than 5 kPa. At the wound edge, cell stiffness was significantly lower within the first 5 μm but increased significantly between 10 and 15 μm before decreasing again below the median values away from the wound edge. When cells were infected with an adenovirus expressing a dominant negative form of RhoA, cell stiffness was significantly decreased compared with cells infected with a control adenovirus. In addition, expression of dominant negative RhoA abrogated the peak increase in stiffness near the wound edge. These results suggest that cells near the wound edge undergo localized changes in cellular stiffness that may provide signals for cell spreading and migration
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