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Int J Biol Sci 2018; 14(9):1142-1152. doi:10.7150/ijbs.26738

Research Paper

An investigation of the distribution and location of mast cells affected by the stiffness of substrates as a mechanical niche

Hong-Wei Yang1, Xin-Yue Liu2, Zhou-Feng Shen1, Wei Yao1✉, Xiao-Bo Gong2✉, Hua-Xiong Huang3, Guang-Hong Ding1

1. Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, China.
2. Key Laboratory of Hydrodynamics (Ministry of Education), Department of Engineering Mechanics, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai 200240, China.
3. Department of Mathematics and Statistics, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3.


The distribution and location of mast cells are closely related to their physiological and pathological functions, such as allergic responses, immunity, and fibrosis, and are used in acupuncture. In this study, the distribution of mast cells in vivo was observed, and mechanical clues for understanding their distribution based on mechanical niches were explored. By toluidine blue staining and immunohistochemical staining, we examined the distribution and location of mast cells in rat skin and found that mast cells are distributed in a spatially nonuniform manner, preferring to locate at regions in the tissue and extracellular matrix with stiffness changes. In vitro experiments for studying the distribution of rat basophilic leukemia (RBL-2H3) mast cell line on poly-di-methyl-siloxane (PDMS) substrates with stiffness variations were performed. It was found that RBL-2H3 cells migrate and tend to remain in the areas with stiffness variations. The present research suggests that changing the stiffness of local tissues may stimulate mast cell recruitment, which may be the method by which some traditional Chinese medicine treatments, such as acupuncture. On the basis of the origin of mast cells and our experimental results, we predict that mast cells exist in tissues that contain permeable capillaries and prefer regions with stiffness changes. We discussed this prediction using examples of specific tissues from some cases.

Keywords: Mast cells, Stiffness variations, Distribution, Durotaxis, Acupuncture, Fibrosis

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY-NC) license ( See for full terms and conditions.
How to cite this article:
Yang HW, Liu XY, Shen ZF, Yao W, Gong XB, Huang HX, Ding GH. An investigation of the distribution and location of mast cells affected by the stiffness of substrates as a mechanical niche. Int J Biol Sci 2018; 14(9):1142-1152. doi:10.7150/ijbs.26738. Available from