To understand the microscopic mechanical properties of actin networks, we monitor the motion of embedded particles with controlled surface properties. The highly resolved Brownian motions of these particles reveal the viscoelastic character of the microenvironments around them. In both non-cross-linked and highly cross-linked actin networks, particles that bind F-actin report viscoelastic moduli comparable to those determined by macroscopic rheology experiments. By contrast, particles modified to prevent actin binding have weak microenvironments that are surprisingly insensitive to the introduction of filament cross-links. Even when adjacent in the same cross-linked gel, actin-binding and nonbinding particles report viscoelastic moduli that differ by two orders of magnitude at low frequencies (0.5-1.5 rad/s) but converge at high frequencies (> 104 rad/s). For all particle chemistries, electron and light microscopies show no F-actin recruitment or depletion, so F-actin microheterogeneities cannot explain the deep penetration (~100 nm) of nonbinding particles. Instead, we hypothesize that a local depletion of cross-linking around nonbinding particles explains the phenomena. With implications for organelle mobility in cells, our results show that actin binding is required for microenvironments to reflect macroscopic properties, and conversely, releasing actin enhances particle mobility beyond the effects of mere biochemical untethering.
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