Living tissues consist largely of cells and extracellular matrices (ECMs). The mechanical properties of ECM have been found to play a key role in regulating cell behaviors such as migration, proliferation, and differentiation. Although most studies to date have focused on elucidating the impact of matrix elasticity on cell behaviors, recent studies have revealed an impact of matrix viscoelasticity on cell behaviors and reported plastic remodeling of ECM by cells. In this study, we rigorously characterized the plasticity in materials commonly used for cell culture. This characterization of plasticity revealed time-dependent plasticity, or viscoplasticity, in collagen gels, reconstituted basement membrane matrix, agarose gels, alginate gels, and fibrin gels, but not in polyacrylamide gels. Viscoplasticity was associated with gels that contained weak bonds, and covalent cross-linking diminished viscoplasticity in collagen and alginate gels. Interestingly, the degree of plasticity was found to be nonlinear, or dependent on the magnitude of stress or strain, in collagen gels, but not in the other viscoplastic materials. Viscoplastic models were employed to describe plasticity in the viscoplastic materials. Relevance of matrix viscoplasticity to cell-matrix interactions was established through a quantitative assessment of plastic remodeling of collagen gels by cells. Plastic remodeling of collagen gels was found to be dependent on cellular force, mediated through integrin-based adhesions, and occurred even with inhibition of proteolytic degradation of the matrix. Together, these results reveal that matrix viscoplasticity facilitates plastic remodeling of matrix by cellular forces.
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