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Mechanics of microtubule buckling in living cells

Teng Li's picture

As the most rigid cytoskeletal filaments, microtubules bear compressive forces in living cells, balancing the tensile forces within the cytoskeleton to maintain the cell shape. It is often observed that, in living cells, microtubules under compression severely buckle into short wavelengths. By contrast, when compressed, isolated microtubules in vitro buckle into single long-wavelength arcs. The critical buckling force of the microtubules in vitro is two orders of magnitude lower than that of the microtubules in living cells.

To explain this discrepancy, we describe a mechanics model of microtubule buckling in living cells. The model investigates the effect of the surrounding filament network and the cytosol on the microtubule buckling. The results show that, while the buckling wavelength is set by the interplay between the microtubules and the elastic surrounding filament network, the buckling growth rate is set by the viscous cytosol. The model quantitatively correlates the microtubule bending rigidity, the surrounding filament network elasticity, and the cytosol viscosity with the buckling wavelength, the buckling growth rate, and the buckling amplitude of the microtubules. Such results shed light on designing a unified experimental protocol to measure various critical mechanical properties of subcellular structures in living cells.

The paper is available at: 

Li, T., A mechanics model of microtubule buckling in living cells. Journal of Biomechanics, 41, 1722-1729 (2008), doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2008.03.003


Yanfei Gao's picture

Interesting work!

Fangsen's picture

Very interesting work!

Is it possible to use commercial software such as ABAQUS to simulate the buckling of the microtubules? 


Teng Li's picture


Thanks for your kind words. In the above paper, the buckling of microtubules is studied in an analytical manner. As discussed in the paper, the model captures certain key features of the MT buckling, but is far from comprehensive to shed insights on some other interesting and important features. Simulations via FEM and/or MD will be needed to reveal the underlying mechanisms of such features. We are  working along this line.


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