Optoregulated force application to cellular receptors using molecular motors

Progress in our understanding of mechanotransduction events requires noninvasive methods for the manipulation of forces at molecular scale in physiological environments. Inspired by cellular mechanisms for force application (i.e. motor proteins pulling on cytoskeletal fibers), we present a unique molecular machine that can apply forces at cell-matrix and cell-cell junctions using light as an energy source. The key actuator is a light-driven rotatory molecular motor linked to polymer chains, which is intercalated between a membrane receptor and an engineered biointerface. The light-driven actuation of the molecular motor is converted in mechanical twisting of the entangled polymer chains, which will in turn effectively “pull” on engaged cell membrane receptors (e.g., integrins, T cell receptors) within the illuminated area. Applied forces have physiologically-relevant magnitude and occur at time scales within the relevant ranges for mechanotransduction at cell-friendly exposure conditions, as demonstrated in force-dependent focal adhesion maturation and T cell activation experiments. Our results reveal the potential of nanomotors for the manipulation of living cells at the molecular scale and demonstrate a functionality which at the moment cannot be achieved by other technologies for force application.