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Biophys J. 1994 Oct;67(4):1749-53.

Viscoelasticity of living cells allows high resolution imaging by tapping mode atomic force microscopy.

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Department of Applied Physics, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands.


Application of atomic force microscopy (AFM) to biological objects and processes under physiological conditions has been hampered so far by the deformation and destruction of the soft biological materials invoked. Here we describe a new mode of operation in which the standard V-shaped silicon nitride cantilever is oscillated under liquid and damped by the interaction between AFM tip and sample surface. Because of the viscoelastic behavior of the cellular surface, cells effectively "harden" under such a tapping motion at high frequencies and become less susceptible to deformation. Images obtained in this way primarily reveal the surface structure of the cell. It is now possible to study physiological processes, such as cell growth, with a minimal level of perturbation and high spatial resolution (approximately 20 nm).

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