Prestress and Area Compressibility of Actin Cortices Determine the Viscoelastic Response of Living Cells

Shape, dynamics, and viscoelastic properties of eukaryotic cells are primarily governed by a thin, reversibly cross-linked actomyosin cortex located directly beneath the plasma membrane. We obtain time-dependent rheological responses of fibroblasts and MDCK II cells from deformation-relaxation curves using an atomic force microscope to access the dependence of cortex fluidity on prestress. We introduce a viscoelastic model that treats the cell as a composite shell and assumes that relaxation of the cortex follows a power law giving access to cortical prestress, area-compressibility modulus, and the power law exponent (fluidity). Cortex fluidity is modulated by interfering with myosin activity. We find that the power law exponent of the cell cortex decreases with increasing intrinsic prestress and area-compressibility modulus, in accordance with previous finding for isolated actin networks subject to external stress. Extrapolation to zero tension returns the theoretically predicted power law exponent for transiently cross-linked polymer networks. In contrast to the widely used Hertzian mechanics, our model provides viscoelastic parameters independent of indenter geometry and compression velocity.