Reduced adhesive ligand density in engineered extracellular matrices induces an epithelial-mesenchymal-like transition

Saw Marlar, Shimaa A. Abdellatef, Jun Nakanishi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


A synergistic effect of biochemical and mechanical cues emanating from the extracellular matrix (ECM) on inducing malignant transformation of epithelial cells has been observed recently. However, the effect of quantitative changes in biochemical stimuli on cell phenotype, without changes in ECM component and rigidity, remains unknown. To determine this effect, we grew Madin-Darby canine kidney epithelial cells (MDCK) on gold surfaces immobilized with varying densities of cyclic arginine-glycine-aspartate (cRGD) peptide and analyzed cell morphology, cell migration, cytoskeletal organization, and protein expression. Cells grown on a surface presenting a higher density of cRGD displayed an epithelial morphology and grew in clusters, while those grown on a diluted cRGD surface transformed into an elongated, fibroblast-like form with extensive scattering. Time-lapse imaging of cell clusters grown on the concentrated cRGD surface revealed collective migration with intact cell-cell contacts accompanied by the development of cortical actin. In contrast, cells migrated individually and formed stress fibers on the substrate with sparse cRGD. These data point towards transdifferentiation of epithelial cells to mesenchymal-like cells when plated on a diluted cRGD surface. Supporting this hypothesis, immunofluorescence microscopy and western blot analysis revealed increased membrane localization and total expression of N-cadherin and vimentin in cells undergoing mesenchymal-like transition. Taken together, these results suggest a possible role of decreased biochemical stimuli from the ECM in regulating epithelial phenotype switching. Statement of Significance Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a process where adherent epithelial cells convert into individual migratory mesenchymal phenotype. It plays an important role both in physiological and pathological processes. Recent studies demonstrate that the program is not only governed by soluble factors and gene expressions, but also modulated by biochemical and mechanical cues in ECMs. In this study, we developed chemically defined surfaces presenting controlled ECM ligand densities and studied their impact on the EMT progression. Morphological and biochemical analyses of epithelial cells cultured on the surfaces indicate the cells undergo an EMT-like transition on the diluted cRGD surface while retaining epithelial characteristics on the cRGD-rich substrate, suggesting an important role of the ECM ligand density in epithelial phenotype switching.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106-113
Number of pages8
JournalActa Biomaterialia
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Jul 15
Externally publishedYes


  • Epithelial-mesenchymal transition
  • Extracellular matrix
  • MDCK
  • Mechanobiology
  • Microenvironment
  • cRGD

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Molecular Biology


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