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Rev Sci Instrum. 2007 Apr;78(4):043711.

Differential force microscope for long time-scale biophysical measurements.

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Department of Chemistry, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


Force microscopy techniques including optical trapping, magnetic tweezers, and atomic force microscopy (AFM) have facilitated quantification of forces and distances on the molecular scale. However, sensitivity and stability limitations have prevented the application of these techniques to biophysical systems that generate large forces over long times, such as actin filament networks. Growth of actin networks drives cellular shape change and generates nano-Newtons of force over time scales of minutes to hours, and consequently network growth properties have been difficult to study. Here, we present an AFM-based differential force microscope with integrated epifluorescence imaging in which two adjacent cantilevers on the same rigid support are used to provide increased measurement stability. We demonstrate 14 nm displacement control over measurement times of 3 hours and apply the instrument to quantify actin network growth in vitro under controlled loads. By measuring both network length and total network fluorescence simultaneously, we show that the average cross-sectional density of the growing network remains constant under static loads. The differential force microscope presented here provides a sensitive method for quantifying force and displacement with long time-scale stability that is useful for measurements of slow biophysical processes in whole cells or in reconstituted molecular systems in vitro.

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