Cells respond to mechanical stimuli with diverse molecular responses. The nature of the sensory mechanism involved in mechanotransduction is not known, but integrins may play an important role. The integrins are linked to both the cytoskeleton and extracellular matrix, suggesting that probing cells via integrins should yield different mechanical properties than probing cells via non-cytoskeleton-associated receptors. To test the hypothesis that the mechanical properties of a cell are dependent on the receptor on which the stress is applied, human aortic smooth muscle cells were plated, and magnetic beads, targeted either to the integrins via fibronectin or to the transferrin receptor by use of an IgG antibody, were attached to the cell surface. The resistance of the cell to deformation ("stiffness") was estimated by oscillating the magnetic beads at 1 Hz by use of single-pole magnetic tweezers at 2 different magnitudes. The ratio of bead displacements at different magnitudes was used to explore the mechanical properties of the cells. Cells stressed via the integrins required approximately 10-fold more force to obtain the same bead displacements as the cells stressed via the transferrin receptors. Cells stressed via integrins showed stiffening behavior as the force was increased, whereas this stiffening was significantly less for cells stressed via the transferrin receptor (P<0.001). Mechanical characteristics of vascular smooth muscle cells depend on the receptor by which the stress is applied, with integrin-based linkages demonstrating cell-stiffening behavior.