We demonstrate that ZnO films grown by atomic layer deposition (ALD) can be employed as a substrate to explore the effects of electrical conductivity on cell adhesion, proliferation, and morphogenesis. ZnO substrates with precisely tunable electrical conductivity were fabricated on glass substrates using ALD deposition. The electrical conductivity of the film increased linearly with increasing duration of the ZnO deposition cycle (thickness), whereas other physical characteristics, such as surface energy and roughness, tended to saturate at a certain value. Differences in conductivity dramatically affected the behavior of SF295 glioblastoma cells grown on ZnO films, with high conductivity (thick) ZnO films causing growth arrest and producing SF295 cell morphologies distinct from those cultured on insulating substrates. Based on simple electrostatic calculations, we propose that cells grown on highly conductive substrates may strongly adhere to the substrate without focal-adhesion complex formation, owing to the enhanced electrostatic interaction between cells and the substrate. Thus, the inactivation of focal adhesions leads to cell proliferation arrest. Taken together, the work presented here confirms that substrates with high conductivity disturb the cell-substrate interaction, producing cascading effects on cellular morphogenesis and disrupting proliferation, and suggests that ALD-grown ZnO offers a single-variable method for uniquely tailoring conductivity.
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