Previous work has established that mechanical forces can lead to quantifiable alterations in cell function. However, how forces change gene expression in a single cell and the mechanisms of force transmission to the nucleus are poorly understood. Here we demonstrate that the gene expression of proteins related to the extracellular matrix in single articular chondrocytes is modified by compressive forces in a dosage-dependent manner. Increasing force exposure catabolically shifts single-cell mRNA levels of aggrecan, collagen IIa, and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase-1. Cytohistochemistry reveals that the majority of strain experienced by the cell is also experienced by the nucleus, resulting in considerable changes in nuclear volume and structure. Transforming growth factor-β1 and insulin-like growth factor-I offer mechanoprotection and recovery of gene expression of aggrecan and metalloproteinase-1. These results suggest that forces directly influence gene transcription and may do so by changing chromatin conformation.
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