The viscoelasticity of the crosslinked semiflexible polymer networks—such as the internal cytoskeleton and the extracellular matrix—that provide shape and mechanical resistance against deformation is assumed to dominate tissue mechanics. However, the mechanical responses of soft tissues and semiflexible polymer gels differ in many respects. Tissues stiffen in compression but not in extension1–5, whereas semiflexible polymer networks soften in compression and stiffen in extension6,7. In shear deformation, semiflexible polymer gels stiffen with increasing strain, but tissues do not1–8. Here we use multiple experimental systems and a theoretical model to show that a combination of nonlinear polymer network elasticity and particle (cell) inclusions is essential to mimic tissue mechanics that cannot be reproduced by either biopolymer networks or colloidal particle systems alone. Tissue rheology emerges from an interplay between strain-stiffening polymer networks and volume-conserving cells within them. Polymer networks that soften in compression but stiffen in extension can be converted to materials that stiffen in compression but not in extension by including within the network either cells or inert particles to restrict the relaxation modes of the fibrous networks that surround them. Particle inclusions also suppress stiffening in shear deformation; when the particle volume fraction is low, they have little effect on the elasticity of the polymer networks. However, as the particles become more closely packed, the material switches from compression softening to compression stiffening. The emergence of an elastic response in these composite materials has implications for how tissue stiffness is altered in disease and can lead to cellular dysfunction9–11. Additionally, the findings could be used in the design of biomaterials with physiologically relevant mechanical properties.
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