The mechanical properties of single living cells have proven to be a powerful marker of the cell physiological state. The use of nanoindentation-based single cell force spectroscopy provided a wealth of information on the elasticity of cells, which is still largely to be exploited. The simplest model to describe cell mechanics is to treat them as a homogeneous elastic material and describe it in terms of the Young's modulus. Beside its simplicity, this approach proved to be extremely informative, allowing to assess the potential of this physical indicator towards high throughput phenotyping in diagnostic and prognostic applications.
Here we propose an extension of this analysis to explicitly account for the properties of the actin cortex. We present a method, the Elasticity Spectra, to calculate the apparent stiffness of the cell as a function of the indentation depth and we suggest a simple phenomenological approach to measure the thickness and stiffness of the actin cortex, in addition to the standard Young's modulus.
The Elasticity Spectra approach is tested and validated on a set of cells treated with cytoskeleton-affecting drugs, showing the potential to extend the current representation of cell mechanics, without introducing a detailed and complex description of the intracellular structure.