Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have the potential for self-renewal and multipotency to differentiate into various lineages. Thus, they are of great interest in regenerative medicine as a cell source for tissue engineering. Substrate stiffness is one of the most extensively studied exogenous physical factors; however, consistent results have not always been reported for controlling MSCs. Conventionally used stiff culture substrates, such as tissue-culture polystyrene and glass, enhance nuclear localization of a mechanotransducer YAP and a pre-osteogenic transcription factor RUNX2, and bias MSCs towards the osteogenic lineage, even without osteogenic-inducing soluble factors. The mechanosensitive nature and intrinsic heterogeneity present challenges for obtaining reproducible results. This review summarizes the heterogeneity in human MSC response, specifically, nuclear/cytoplasmic localization changes in the mechanotransducer yes-associated protein (YAP) and the osteogenic transcription factor RUNX2, in response to substrate stiffness. In addition, a perspective on the intracellular factors attributed to response heterogeneity is discussed. The optimal range of stiffness parameters, Young’s modulus, for MSC expansion culture to suppress osteogenic differentiation bias through the suppression of YAP and RUNX2 nuclear localization, and cell cycle progression is likely to be surprisingly narrow for a cell population from an identical donor and vary among cell populations from different donors. We believe that characterization of the heterogeneity of MSCs and understanding their biological meaning is an exciting research direction to establish guidelines for the design of culture substrates for the sophisticated control of MSC properties.
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