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Biophys J. 2005 Dec;89(6):4320-9. Epub 2005 Sep 23.

Multiple membrane tethers probed by atomic force microscopy.

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Department of Physics, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, USA.


Using the atomic force microscope to locally probe the cell membrane, we observed the formation of multiple tethers (thin nanotubes, each requiring a similar pulling force) as reproducible features within force profiles recorded on individual cells. Forces obtained with Chinese hamster ovary cells, a malignant human brain tumor cell line, and human endothelial cells (EA hy926) were found to be 28 +/- 10 pN, 29 +/- 9 pN, and 29 +/- 10 pN, respectively, independent of the nature of attachment to the cantilever. The rather large variation of the tether pulling forces measured at several locations on individual cells points to the existence of heterogeneity in the membrane properties of a morphologically homogeneous cell. Measurement of the summary lengths of the simultaneously extracted tethers provides a measure of the size of the available membrane reservoir through which co-existing tethers are associated. As expected, partial disruption of the actin cytoskeleton and removal of the hyaluronan backbone of the glycocalyx were observed to result in a marked decrease (30-50%) in the magnitude and a significant sharpening of the force distribution indicating reduced heterogeneity of membrane properties. Taken together, our results demonstrate the ability of the plasma membrane to locally produce multiple interdependent tethers-a process that could play an important role in the mechanical association of cells with their environment.

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