Capturing instructive cues of tissue microenvironment by silica bioreplication

Sze Wing Tang, Wai Yuen, Ishdeep Kaur, Stella W. Pang, Nicolas H. Voelcker, Yun Wah Lam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Cells in tissues are enveloped by an instructive niche made of the extracellular matrix. These instructive niches contain three general types of information: topographical, biochemical and mechanical. While the combined effects of these three factors are widely studied, the functions of each individual one has not been systematically characterised, because it is impossible to alter a single factor in a tissue microenvironment without simultaneously affecting the other two. Silica BioReplication (SBR) is a process that converts biological samples into silica, faithfully preserving the original topography at the nano-scale. We explored the use of this technique to generate inorganic replicas of intact mammalian tissues, including tendon, cartilage, skeletal muscle and spinal cord. Scanning electron and atomic force microscopy showed that the resulting replicas accurately preserved the three-dimensional ultrastructure of each tissue, while all biochemical components were eradicated by calcination. Such properties allowed the uncoupling the topographical information of a tissue microenvironment from its biochemical and mechanical components. Here, we showed that human mesenchymal stem cells (MSC) cultured on the replicas of different tissues displayed vastly different morphology and focal adhesions, suggesting that the topography of the tissue microenvironment captured by SBR could profoundly affect MSC biology. MSC cultured on tendon replica elongated and expressed tenocytes marker, while MSC on the spinal cord replica developed into spheroids that resembled neurospheres, in morphology and in the expression of neurosphere markers, and could be further differentiated into neuron-like cells. This study reveals the significance of topographical cues in a cell niche, as tissue-specific topography was sufficient in initiating and directing differentiation of MSC, despite the absence of any biochemical signals. SBR is a convenient and versatile method for capturing this topographical information, facilitating the functional characterisation of cell niches. Statement of significance: Various studies have shown that three major factors, topographical, biochemical and mechanical, in a tissue microenvironment (TME) are essential for cellular homeostasis and functions. Current experimental models are too simplistic to represent the complexity of the TME, hindering the detailed understanding of its functions. In particular, the importance each factor in a tissue microenvironment have not been individually characterised, because it is challenging to alter one of these factors without simultaneously affecting the other two. Silica bioreplication (SBR) is a process that converts biological samples into silica replicas with high structural fidelity. SBR is a convenient and versatile method for capturing this topographical information on to a biologically inert material, allowing the functional characterisation of the architecture of a TME.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)114-126
Number of pages13
JournalActa Biomaterialia
Early online date31 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes

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