Fluctuations in cell density alter protein markers of multiple cellular compartments, confounding experimental outcomes

Katarina Trajkovic*, Clarissa Valdez, Daniel Ysselstein, Dimitri Krainc

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The life cycle of cultured proliferating cells is characterized by fluctuations in cell population density induced by periodic subculturing. This leads to corresponding changes in micro- and macroenvironment of the cells, accompanied by altered cellular metabolism, growth rate and locomotion. Studying cell density-dependent morphological, physiological and biochemical fluctuations is relevant for understanding basic cellular mechanisms and for uncovering the intrinsic variation of commonly used tissue culture experimental models. Using multiple cell lines, we found that expression levels of the autophagic markers p62 and LC3II, and lysosomal enzyme cathepsin D were altered in highly confluent cells as a consequence of nutrient depletion and cell crowding, which led to inactivation of the mTOR signaling pathway. Furthermore, both Lamp1 and active focal adhesion kinase (FAK) were reduced in high-density cells, while chemical inhibition or deletion of FAK led to alterations in lysosomal and autophagic proteins, as well as in the mTOR signaling. This was accompanied by alterations in the Hippo signaling pathway, while cell cycle checkpoint regulator p-cdc2 remained unaffected in at least one studied cell line. On the other hand, allometric scaling of cellular compartments in growing cell populations resulted in biochemically detectable changes in the plasma membrane proteins Na + K + -ATPase and cadherin, and nuclear proteins HDAC1 and Lamin B1. Finally, we demonstrate how treatment-induced changes in cell density and corresponding modulation of susceptible proteins may lead to ambiguous experimental outcomes, or erroneous interpretation of cell culture data. Together, our data emphasize the need to recognize cell density as an important experimental variable in order to improve scientific rigor of cell culture-based studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0211727
JournalPloS one
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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