Cell traction force plays a critical role in directing cellular functions, such as proliferation, migration, and differentiation. Current understanding of cell traction force is largely derived from 2D measurements where cells are plated on 2D substrates. However, 2D measurements do not recapitulate a vital aspect of living systems, that is, cells actively remodel their surrounding extracellular matrix (ECM), and the remodeled ECM, in return, can have a profound impact on cell phenotype and traction force generation. This reciprocal adaptivity of living systems is encoded in the material properties of biological gels. In this review, we summarize recent progress in measuring cell traction force for cells embedded within 3D biological gels, with an emphasis on cell–ECM cross talk. We also provide perspectives on tools and techniques that could be adapted to measure cell traction force in complex biochemical and biophysical environments.

Expected final online publication date for the , Volume 26 is May 2024. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/page/journal/pubdates for revised estimates.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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