Cells imbedded in biopolymer gels are important components of tissue engineering models and cancer tumor microenvironments. In both these cases, contraction of cells attached to the gel is an important phenomenon, and the nonlinear nature of most biopolymers (such as collagen) makes understanding the mechanics of the contraction a challenging problem. Here, we investigate a unique feature of such systems: a point source of contraction leads to substantial deformation of the environment, but large strains and large alignment of the fibers of the gel are confined to a small region surrounding the source. For fibroblasts in collagen-I, we estimate that the radius of this region is of order 90 μ. We investigate this idea using continuum estimates and a finite element code, and we point out experimental manifestations of the effect.

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