Surface topography has been introduced as a new tool to coordinate cell selection, growth, morphology, and differentiation. The materials explored so far for making such
structural surfaces are mostly rigid and impermeable. Hydrogel, on the other hand, was proved a better synthetic media for cell culture because of its biocompatibility, softness, and high permeability. Herein, we fabricated a poly(2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate) (pHEMA) hydrogel substrate with high-aspectratio surface microfeatures. Such structural surface could effectively guide the orientation and shape of human mesenchymal stem cells (HMSCs). Notably, on the flat hydrogel surface, cells rounded up, whereas on the microplate patterned hydrogel surface, cells elongated and aligned along the direction parallel to the plates. The microplates were 2 μm thick, 20 μm tall, and 10−50 μm wide. The interplate spacing was 5−15 μm, and the intercolumn spacing was 5 μm. The elongation of cell body was more pronounced on the patterns with narrower interplate spacing and wider plates. The cells behaved like soft solid. The competition between surface energy and elastic energy defined the shape of the cells on the structured surfaces. The soft permeable hydrogel scaffold with surface structures was also demonstrated as being viable for longterm cell culture, and could be used to generate interconnected tissues with finely tuned cell morphology and alignment across a few centimeter sizes.