Understanding how focal adhesion proteins sense and respond to mechanical signals

  • Benjamin Stutchbury

Student thesis: Phd


This abstract is for the thesis entitled 'Understanding how focal adhesion proteins sense and respond to mechanical signals' by Benjamin Stutchbury. The thesis is submitted in 2016 for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, School of Biological Sciences, University of Manchester.The mechanical properties of the tissue vary widely around the body, from the soft brain to the rigid bone. Tissue cells are able to sense mechanical signals from their environment, which influence many aspects of cell behaviour such as migration, proliferation and differentiation. Focal adhesions (FAs) are large protein complexes that form the bridge between the extracellular matrix (ECM)-binding integrins and the contractile actin cytoskeleton. Here, they sense the rigidity of the local environment and translate this information into a cellular response, a process known as mechanotransduction. However, the FA proteins required for mechanotransduction, and the molecular mechanisms involved in this fundamental process, remain to be elucidated.Talin, vinculin, FAK and paxillin are four core FA-associated proteins that are thought to be involved in mechanotransduction. These proteins associate and dissociate from the complex in a constant state of flux. Using a live-cell imaging approach, I found that the rate of dynamic exchange of an FA protein correlates to its function. The FA appears to have a modular organisation; the slowest proteins have a structural role, such as talin and vinculin, responsible for directly linking integrin to actin and sensing the ECM stiffness. The signalling proteins are turned over more rapidly, including FAK and paxillin, and are responsible for directing the cellular response to force-generated signals from the ECM.The second results chapter focused on the force-dependent interactions between talin, vinculin and actin. The talin domains R2R3 were identified as the key mechanosensitive vinculin-binding sites, which are exposed upon the application of force across the talin rod. Vinculin binding to R2R3 led to actin associating with the central actin-binding site in the talin rod (ABS2), which is required for the transmission of actomyosin tension onto the underlying substrate as cellular traction force. Finally, the protein turnover data were incorporated into two mathematical models, describing talin and vinculin turnover, which were able to simulate the dynamic exchange of various talin and vinculin mutants in response to changing ECM stiffness. Using these models, the talin ABS2-actin and vinculin tail-actin interactions were found to be extremely important for sensing the stiffness of the ECM. These findings significantly increase our knowledge of the molecular mechanisms underpinning cellular mechanotransduction. Increased understanding of how mechanical signals are sensed and interpreted by the cell could lead to a number of novel therapies for a wide range of associated diseases, such as atherosclerosis, muscular dystrophy and cancer.
Date of Award31 Dec 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorChristoph Ballestrem (Supervisor) & Jean-Marc Schwartz (Supervisor)


  • Paxillin
  • FAK
  • Vinculin
  • Mechanosensing
  • Mechanotransduction
  • Focal adhesion
  • Talin

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