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On Tensegrity in Cell Mechanics

Konstantin Volokh's picture

All models are wrong, but some are useful. This famous saying mirrors the situation in cell mechanics as well. It looks like no particular model of the cell deformability can be unconditionally preferred over others and different models reveal different aspects of the mechanical behavior of living cells. The purpose of the present work is to discuss the so-called tensegrity models of the cell cytoskeleton. It seems that the role of the cytoskeleton in the overall mechanical response of the cell was not appreciated until Donald Ingber put a strong emphasis on it. It was fortunate that Ingber linked the cytoskeletal structure to the fascinating art of tensegrity architecture. This link sparked interest and argument among biologists, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. At some point the enthusiasm regarding tensegrity perhaps became overwhelming and as a reaction to that some skepticism built up. To demystify Ingber’s ideas the present work aims at pinpointing the meaning of tensegrity and its role in our understanding of the importance of the cytoskeleton for the cell deformability and motility. It should be noted also that this paper emphasizes basic ideas rather than carefully follows the chronology of the development of tensegrity models. The latter can be found in the comprehensive review by Dimitrije Stamenovic (2006) to which the present work is complementary.


Teng Li's picture


I went over your paper with pleasure and especially like Section 4. "The meaning of tensegrity".

Regarding to your concluding remarks, I feel the structural role of microtubules (MTs) in cells may not be so insignificant.

First of all, elements sustaining compression  are a must in a tensegrity structure (such as MTs in cells). Snelson definition also sheds light on that the number of compression elements could be much smaller than that of tension elements (e.g., microfilaments in cells);

Second, in vivo observations of living cells reveal that MTs buckle into highly wavy shapes under compression, instead of a long arc as in Euler buckling. The critical compression to buckle into short wavelength could be hundreds times higher than the Euler critical buckling load. In this sense, MTs in cells can bear large compression, up to 100s pN. Such shortwave buckling behavior of MTs in living cells is attributed to the mechanical interaction of MTs with the surrounding filament network and the cytosol. The following paper offers a mechanics model to capture the effect of such mechanical interactions on MT buckling living cells.

T. Li, A mechanics model of microtubule buckling in living cells, Journal of Biomechanics, 41, 1722-1729 (2008).


Konstantin Volokh's picture

Dear Teng,

Thanks for your kind comments and the reference. I am sorry that I missed it in my list of references. I promise to correct that in the future Laughing.

Concerning the role of the microtubules i have no strong opinion. It is enigma for me. I hope that this post will attract more people to discuss the issue.



Great article. Thank you very much.


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