After surgery or traumatic injury, corneal wound healing can cause a scarring response that stiffens the tissue and impairs ocular function. This fibrosis is caused in part by the activation of corneal keratocytes from a native mechanically quiescent state to an activated myofibroblastic state. This transformation is tied to signaling downstream of transforming growth factor-β1 (TGF-β1). Here, to better understand how biochemical and biophysical cues interact to regulate keratocyte activation and contractility, we cultured primary rabbit corneal keratocytes on flexible substrata of varying stiffness in the presence (or absence) of TGF-β1. Time-lapse fluorescence microscopy was used to assess changes in keratocyte morphology, as well as to quantify the dynamic traction stresses exerted by cells under different experimental conditions. In other experiments, keratocytes were fixed after 5 days of culture and stained for markers of both contractility and myofibroblastic activation. Treatment with TGF-β1 elicited distinct phenotypes on substrata of different stiffnesses. Cells on soft (1 kPa) gels formed fewer stress fibers and retained a more dendritic morphology, indicative of a quiescent keratocyte phenotype. Keratocytes cultured on stiff (10 kPa) gels or collagen-coated glass coverslips, however, had broad morphologies, formed abundant stress fibers, exhibited greater levels of α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) expression, and exerted larger traction forces. Confocal images of phospho-myosin light chain (pMLC) immunofluorescence, moreover, revealed stiffness-dependent differences in the subcellular distribution of actomyosin contractility, with pMLC localized at the tips of thin cellular processes in mechanically quiescent cells. Importantly, keratocytes cultured in the absence of TGF-β1 showed no stiffness-dependent differences in α-SMA immunofluorescence, suggesting that a stiff microenvironment alone is insufficient to induce myofibroblastic activation. Taken together, these data suggest that changes in ECM stiffness can modulate the morphology, cytoskeletal organization, and subcellular pattern of force generation in corneal keratocytes treated with TGF-β1.
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