Mechanical properties of living cells are important for cell shape, motility, and cellular responses to biochemical and biophysical signals. Although these properties are predominantly determined by the cytoskeleton, relatively little is known about the mechanical organization of cells at a subcellular level. We have studied the cell cortex of bovine pulmonary artery endothelial cells (BPAECs) using atomic force microscopy (AFM) and confocal fluorescence microscopy (CFM). We show that the contrast in AFM imaging of these cells derives in large part from differences in local mechanical properties, and AFM images of BPAEC reveal the local micromechanical architecture of their apical cortex at ∼125 nm resolution. Mechanically the cortex in these cells is organized as a polygonal mesh at two length scales: a coarse mesh with mesh element areas ∼0.5-10 μm2, and a finer mesh with areas <0.5 μm2. These meshes appear to be intertwined, which may have interesting implications for the mechanical properties of the cell. Correlated AFM-CFM experiments and pharmacological treatments reveal that actin and vimentin are components of the coarse mesh, but microtubules are not mechanical components of the BPAEC apical cortex.
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