Stress fibers (SFs), a contractile bundle of actin filaments, play a critical role in mechanotransduction in adherent cells; yet, the mechanical properties of SFs are poorly understood. Here, we measured tensile properties of single SFs by in vitro manipulation with cantilevers. SFs were isolated from cultured vascular smooth muscle cells with a combination of low ionic-strength extraction and detergent extraction and were stretched until breaking. The breaking force and the Young's modulus (assuming that SFs were isotropic) were, on average, 377 nN and 1.45 MPa, which were approximately 600-fold greater and three orders of magnitude lower, respectively, than those of actin filaments reported previously. Strain-induced stiffening was observed in the force-strain curve. We also found that the extracted SFs shortened to approximately 80% of the original length in an ATP-independent manner after they were dislodged from the substrate, suggesting that SFs had preexisting strain in the cytoplasm. The force required for stretching the single SFs from the zero-stress length back to the original length was approximately 10 nN, which was comparable with the traction force level applied by adherent cells at single adhesion sites to maintain cell integrity. These results suggest that SFs can bear intracellular stresses that may affect overall cell mechanical properties and will impact interpretation of intracellular stress distribution and force-transmission mechanism in adherent cells.
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