Studies of collagen gel contraction by embedded fibroblasts have characterized the response of free (unloaded) or isometric (maximally loaded) gels but not the response to intermediate loads. An inexpensive, simple system was devised to isotonically load fibroblast-populated collagen gels using freely hanging weights. This system provided excellent repeatability. Maximal contraction force was estimated at 1 mN per million cells in neonatal rat cardiac fibroblasts, a value that agreed well with reported isometric experiments in fibroblasts from other tissues. The ability to load uniaxially or biaxially and with variable loads will facilitate exploration of the regulation of fibroblast mechanics and biology by stress.

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