Hindrances to precise recovery of cellular forces in fibrous biopolymer networks

Yunsong Zhang, Jingchen Feng, Shay I. Heizler, Herbert Levine*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


How cells move through the three-dimensional extracellular matrix (ECM) is of increasing interest in attempts to understand important biological processes such as cancer metastasis. Just as in motion on flat surfaces, it is expected that experimental measurements of cell-generated forces will provide valuable information for uncovering the mechanisms of cell migration. However, the recovery of forces in fibrous biopolymer networks may suffer from large errors. Here, within the framework of lattice-based models, we explore possible issues in force recovery by solving the inverse problem: how can one determine the forces cells exert to their surroundings from the deformation of the ECM? Our results indicate that irregular cell traction patterns, the uncertainty of local fiber stiffness, the non-affine nature of ECM deformations and inadequate knowledge of network topology will all prevent the precise force determination. At the end, we discuss possible ways of overcoming these difficulties.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number026001
JournalPhysical Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 IOP Publishing Ltd.


  • biopolymer
  • cell motility
  • traction force microscopy


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