Integrin adhesion receptors play a crucial role in regulating interactions between cells and extracellular matrix (ECM). Integrin activation initiates multiple intracellular signaling pathways and results in regulation of cell functions such as motility, proliferation and differentiation. Two key observations regarding the biophysical nature of integrin-mediated cell-matrix interactions motivated the present study: (1) cell motility can be regulated by modulating the magnitude of cell-substratum adhesion, by varying cell integrin expression level, integrin-ECM binding affinity or substratum ECM surface density; and (2) integrin clustering enables assembly of multiple cytoplasmic regulatory and structural proteins at sites of aggregated integrin cytoplasmic domains, activating certain intracellular signalling pathways. Here, using a minimal integrin adhesion ligand, YGRGD, we test the hypothesis that ligand clustering can affect cell migration in a manner related to its modulation of cell-substratum adhesion. We employ a synthetic polymer-linking method, which allows us to independently and systematically vary both the average surface density and the local (approx. 50 nm scale) spatial distribution of the YGRGD peptide, against a background otherwise inert with respect to cell adhesion. In this system, the ligand was presented in three alternative spatial distributions: singly, in clusters with an average of five ligands per cluster, or in clusters with an average of nine ligands per cluster; for each of these spatial distributions, a range of average ligand densities (1,000-200,000 ligands/micrometer(2)) were examined. Cluster spacing was adjusted in order to present equivalent average ligand densities independently of cluster size. The murine NR6 fibroblast cell line was used as a model because its migration behavior on ECM in the presence and absence of growth factors has been well-characterized and it expresses integrins known to interact with the YGRGD peptide. Using time-lapse videomicroscopy and analysis of individual cell movement paths, we find that NR6 cells can migrate on substrata where adhesion is mediated solely by the YGRGD peptide. As previously observed for migration of NR6 cells on fibronectin, migration speed on YGRGD is a function of the average surface ligand density. Strikingly, clustering of ligand significantly reduced the average ligand density required to support cell migration. In fact, non-clustered integrin ligands support cell attachment but neither full spreading nor haptokinetic or chemokinetic motility. In addition, by quantifying the strength of cell-substratum adhesion, we find that the variation of cell speed with spatial presentation of YGRGD is mediated via its effect on cell adhesion. These effects on motility and adhesion are also observed in the presence of epidermal growth factor (EGF), a known motility-regulating growth factor. Variation in YGRGD presentation also affects the organization of actin filaments within the cell, with a greater number of cells exhibiting stress fibers at higher cluster sizes of YGRGD. Our observations demonstrate that cell motility may be regulated by varying ligand spatial presentation at the nanoscale level, and suggest that integrin clustering is required to support cell locomotion.

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