We have reported previously that cellular stimulation induced by variable mechanochemical properties of the extracellular microenvironment can significantly alter liver-specific function in cultured hepatocytes (Semler et al., Biotech Bioeng 69:359–369, 2000). Cell activation via time-invariant presentation of biochemical growth factors was found to either enhance or repress cellular differentiation of cultured hepatocytes depending on the mechanical properties of the underlying substrate. In this work, we investigated the effects of dynamic growth factor stimulation on the cell growth and differentiation behavior of hepatocytes cultured on either compliant or rigid substrates. Specifically, hepatotrophic growth factors (epidermal and hepatocyte) were either temporally added or withdrawn from hepatocyte cultures on Matrigel that was crosslinked to yield differential degrees of mechanical compliance. We determined that the functional responsiveness of hepatocytes to fluctuations in GF stimulation is substrate specific but only in conditions in which the initial mechanochemical environment induced significant cell morphogenesis. Our studies indicate that in conditions under which hepatocytes adopted a “rounded” phenotype, they exhibited increased levels of differentiated function upon soluble stimulation and markedly decreased function upon the depletion of GF stimulation. In contrast, hepatocytes that assumed a “spread” phenotype exhibited slightly increased function upon the depletion of GF stimulation. By examining the functional responsiveness of hepatocytes of differential morphology to varied fluctuations in GF activation, insights into the ability of cell shape to “prime” hepatocyte behavior in dynamic microenvironments were elucidated. We report on the possibility of uncoupling and, thus, selectively manipulating, the concerted contributions of GF-induced cellular activation and substrate- and GF-induced cell morphogenesis toward induction of cell function. © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Biotechnol Bioeng 75: 510–520, 2001.
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