The extracellular matrix (ECM) is an integral component of the cellular microenvironment, where it has a direct influence on cell behaviour based upon its physico-chemical properties.

The stress stiffening of the ECM i.e. the adaptive response of the ECM to applied physical force, has been demonstrated to be an essential property for the differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells to either adipocytes or bone cells. Focal adhesion complexes are a key protein complex known to relay the physico-chemical properties of the ECM to cells. This project investigates the expression of these complexes as a response to the ECM and their pluripotency state and how these properties are translated to influence stem cell differentiation direction.

Using defined synthetic and naturally derived materials with the same stress stiffening properties as the ECM will provide for comprehensive investigation of the mechanotransduction signalling pathways in stem cell differentiation. The control of interactions between cell and ECM by the application of defined physical forces and endocrine cues will enable insight into these key biophysical influences of stem cell differentiation.

Supervisor: Dr Romanthi Jessica Madawala