We derive the equations for a thin, axisymmetric elastic shell subjected to an internal active stress giving rise to active tension and moments within the shell. We discuss the stability of a cylindrical elastic shell and its response to a localized change in internal active stress. This description is relevant to describe the cellular actomyosin cortex, a thin shell at the cell surface behaving elastically at a short timescale and subjected to active internal forces arising from myosin molecular motor activity. We show that the recent observations of cell deformation following detachment of adherent cells (Maître J-L et al 2012 Science 338 253–6) are well accounted for by this mechanical description. The actin cortex elastic and bending moduli can be obtained from a quantitative analysis of cell shapes observed in these experiments. Our approach thus provides a non-invasive, imaging-based method for the extraction of cellular physical parameters.
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