A simple micromechanical method has been used to directly measure the force of contraction in single mammalian phagocytes (blood granulocytes) during engulfment of large yeast pathogens. Both the time course of cell spreading over the yeast particle and increase in cell body contractile force were quantitated at three temperatures in the range of 23-35 degrees C. The surprising feature of the phagocyte response was that engulfment and cell body contraction occurred in a serial sequence: i.e., the phagocyte spread rapidly over the particle at a steady rate with no detectable cell body contraction; when spreading stopped, contraction force in the cell body then rose steadily to a plateau level that remained stationary until the next sequence of spreading and contraction. Both spreading and contraction exhibited abrupt start/stop kinetics. Also impressive, the cell contraction force stimulated by phagocytosis was quite large (approximately 10(-8) N)-two orders of magnitude larger than the force necessary to deform passive phagocytes to the same extent. If distributed uniformly over the cell cross section, the contraction force is equivalent to an average contractile stress of approximately 10(3) N/m2 (0.01 Atm). These physical measurements in situ set critical requirements for the mechanism of force generation in granulocytes, imply that a major increase in network cross-linking accompanies build-up in contractile force and that subsequent network dissolution is necessary for locomotion.

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