The relationship between ECM mechanics and cell behavior is dynamic, as cells remodel and respond to changes in their local environment. Most in vitro substrates are static and supraphysiologically stiff; thus, platforms with dynamic and reversible mechanical changes are needed. Herein, we developed hyaluronic acid-based substrates capable of sequential photodegradation and photoinitiated crosslinking reactions to soften and then stiffen the hydrogels over a physiologically relevant range of moduli. Reversible mechanical signaling to adhered cells was demonstrated with human mesenchymal stem cells. In situ hydrogel softening (from ca. 14 to 3.5 kPa) led to a decrease in the cell area and nuclear localization of YAP/TAZ, and subsequent stiffening (from ca. 3.5 to 28 kPa) increased the cell area and nuclear localization of YAP/TAZ. Each photoreaction was cytocompatible and tunable, rendering this platform amenable to studies of dynamic mechanics on cell behavior across many cell types and contexts.
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