We have designed and developed a microfluidic system to study the response of cells to controlled gradients of mechanical stiffness in 3D collagen gels. An ‘H’-shaped, source–sink network was filled with a type I collagen solution, which self-assembled into a fibrillar gel. A 1D gradient of genipin—a natural crosslinker that also causes collagen to fluoresce upon crosslinking—was generated in the cross-channel through the 3D collagen gel to create a gradient of crosslinks and stiffness. The gradient of stiffness was observed via fluorescence. A separate, underlying channel in the microfluidic construct allowed the introduction of cells into the gradient. Neurites from chick dorsal root ganglia explants grew significantly longer down the gradient of stiffness than up the gradient and than in control gels not treated with genipin. No changes in cell adhesion, collagen fiber size, or density were observed following crosslinking with genipin, indicating that the primary effect of genipin was on the mechanical properties of the gel. These results demonstrate that (1) the microfluidic system can be used to study durotactic behavior of cells and (2) neurite growth can be directed and enhanced by a gradient of mechanical properties, with the goal of incorporating mechanical gradients into nerve and spinal cord regenerative therapies. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2009;102: 632–643. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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