A thermodynamic theory of short-term (less than 2 hr) in vitro cell adhesion has been developed which allows calculation of reversible work of adhesion and estimation of a term proportional to cell-substrate contact area. The theory provides a means of determining a parameter related to membrane wetting tension for microscopic cells that does not require special manipulations which might desiccate or denature delicate cell membranes. Semiquantitative agreement between predicted and experimentally-measured cell adhesion obtained for three different cell types (MDCK, RBL-1, and HCT-15) in two different liquid phase compositions of surfactants (Tween-80 and fetal bovine serum) supports concepts and approximations utilized in development of theory. Cell-substrate contact areas were largest for wettable surfaces treated with ionizing corona or plasma discharges and smallest for hydrophobic materials for each cell type studied. Contact area for the continuous dog-kidney cell line MDCK was larger than that of either the leukemic blood cell RBL-1 or the anaplastic human colon cell HCT-15.
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