Authors: Daan Vorselen1,2, Yifan Wang3, Miguel M. de Jesus 4, Pavak K. Shah5, Matthew J. Footer1,2, Morgan Huse4, Wei Cai 3 & Julie A. Theriot 1,2*
Force exertion is an integral part of cellular behavior. Traction force microscopy (TFM) has been instrumental for studying such forces, providing spatial force measurements at subcellular resolution. However, the applications of classical TFM are restricted by the typical planar geometry. Here, we develop a particle-based force sensing strategy for studying cellular interactions. We establish a straightforward batch approach for synthesizing uniform, deformable and tuneable hydrogel particles, which can also be easily derivatized. The 3D shape of such particles can be resolved with superresolution (<50 nm) accuracy using conventional confocal microscopy. We introduce a reference-free computational method allowing inference of traction forces with high sensitivity directly from the particle shape. We illustrate the potential of this approach by revealing subcellular force patterns throughout phagocytic engulfment and force dynamics in the cytotoxic T-cell immunological synapse. This strategy can readily be adapted for studying cellular forces in a wide range of applications.