Bioactive metabolites have wide-ranging biological activities and are a potential source of future research and therapeutic tools. Here, we use nanovibrational stimulation to induce osteogenic differentiation of mesenchymal stem cells, in the absence of off-target, nonosteogenic differentiation. We show that this differentiation method, which does not rely on the addition of exogenous growth factors to culture media, provides an artifact-free approach to identifying bioactive metabolites that specifically and potently induce osteogenesis. We first identify a highly specific metabolite, cholesterol sulfate, an endogenous steroid. Next, a screen of other small molecules with a similar steroid scaffold identified fludrocortisone acetate with both specific and highly potent osteogenic-inducing activity. Further, we implicate cytoskeletal contractility as a measure of osteogenic potency and cell stiffness as a measure of specificity. These findings demonstrate that physical principles can be used to identify bioactive metabolites and then enable optimization of metabolite potency can be optimized by examining structure-function relationships.
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