Mechanical Stretching of Fibronectin Fibers Upregulates Binding of Interleukin‑7

Since evidence is rising that extracellular matrix (ECM) fibers might serve as reservoirs for growth factors and cytokines, we investigated the interaction between fibronectin (FN) and interleukin-7 (IL-7), a cytokine of immunological significance and a target of several immunotherapies. By employing a FN fiber stretch assay and Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) confocal microscopy, we found that stretching of FN fibers increased IL-7 binding. We localized the FN binding site on the CD loop of IL-7, since a synthetic CD loop peptide also bound stronger to stretched than to relaxed FN fibers. On the basis of a structural model, we propose that the CD loop can bind to FN, while IL-7 is bound to its cognate cell surface receptors. Sequence alignment with bacterial adhesins, which also bind the FN N-terminus, suggests that a conserved motif on the CD loop (110TKSLEEN116 and the truncated 112SLEE115 in human and mouse IL-7, respectively) might bind to the second FN type I module (FnI2) and that additional epitopes enhance the stretch-upregulated binding. FN fiber stretching might thus serve as a mechano-regulated mechanism to locally concentrate IL-7 in an ECM-bound state, thereby upregulating the potency of IL-7 signaling. A feedback model mechanism is proposed that could explain the well-known, but poorly understood, function of IL-7 in ECM homeostasis. Understanding how local IL-7 availability and signaling might be modulated by the tensional state of the ECM niche, which is adjusted by residing stroma cells, is highly relevant for basic science but also for advancing IL-7 based immunotherapies.