Cellular and tissue biosystems emerge from the assembly of their constituent molecules and obtain a set of specific material properties. To measure these properties and understand how they influence cellular function is a central goal of mechanobiology. From a bottoms-up, physics or engineering point-of-view, such systems are a composition of basic mechanical elements. However, the sheer number and dynamic complexity of them, including active molecular machines and their emergent properties, makes it currently intractable to calculate how biosystems respond to forces. Because many diseases result from an aberrant mechanotransduction, it is thus essential to measure this response. Recent advances in the technology of optical tweezers have broadened their scope from single-molecule applications to measurements inside complex cellular environments, even within tissues and animals. Here, we summarize the basic optical trapping principles, implementations and calibration procedures that enable force measurements using optical tweezers directly inside cells of living animals, in combination with complementary techniques. We review their versatility to manipulate subcellular organelles and measure cellular frequency-dependent mechanics in the piconewton force range from microseconds to hours. As an outlook, we address future challenges to fully unlock the potential of optical tweezers for mechanobiology.

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