A Corrigendum to this article was published in Sci Rep 6, 32905 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep32905.
The mechanics of the cellular microenvironment can be as critical as biochemistry in directing cell behavior. Many commonly utilized materials derived from extra-cellular-matrix create excellent scaffolds for cell growth, however, evaluating the relative mechanical and biochemical effects independently in 3D environments has been difficult in frequently used biopolymer matrices. Here we present 3D sodium alginate hydrogel microenvironments over a physiological range of stiffness (E = 1.85 to 5.29 kPa), with and without RGD binding sites or collagen fibers. We use confocal microscopy to measure the growth of multi-cellular aggregates (MCAs), of increasing metastatic potential in different elastic moduli of hydrogels, with and without binding factors. We find that the hydrogel stiffness regulates the growth and morphology of these cell clusters; MCAs grow larger and faster in the more rigid environments similar to cancerous breast tissue (E = 4-12 kPa) as compared to healthy tissue (E = 0.4-2 kpa). Adding binding factors from collagen and RGD peptides increases growth rates, and change maximum MCA sizes. These findings demonstrate the utility of these independently tunable mechanical/biochemistry gels, and that mechanical confinement in stiffer microenvironments may increase cell proliferation.