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Micron. 2012 Dec;43(12):1390-8. doi: 10.1016/j.micron.2012.01.012. Epub 2012 Feb 4.

Scanning ion conductance microscopy for imaging biological samples in liquid: a comparative study with atomic force microscopy and scanning electron microscopy.

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Division of Microscopic Anatomy, Niigata University Graduate School of Medical and Dental Sciences, 1-757 Asahimachi-dori, Niigata 951-8510, Japan.


The present study was designed to show the applicability of scanning ion conductance microscopy (SICM) for imaging different types of biological samples. For this purpose, we first applied SICM to image collagen fibrils and showed the usefulness of the approach-retract scanning (ARS)/hopping mode for such samples with steep slopes. Comparison of SICM images with those obtained by AFM revealed that the ARS/hopping SICM mode can probe the surface topography of collagen fibrils and chromosomes at nanoscale resolution under liquid conditions. In addition, we successfully imaged cultured HeLa cells, with 15 μm in height by ARS/hopping SICM mode. Because SICM can obtain non-contact (or force-free) images, delicate cellular projections were visualized on the surface of the fixed cell. SICM imaging of live HeLa cells further demonstrated its applicability to study the morphological dynamics associated with biological processes on the time scale of minutes under liquid conditions. We further applied SICM for imaging the luminal surface of the trachea and succeeded in visualizing the surface of both ciliated and non-ciliated cells. These SICM images were comparable with those obtained by scanning electron microscopy. Although the dynamic mode of AFM provides better resolution than the ARS/hopping mode of SICM in some samples, only the latter can obtain contact-free images of samples with steep slopes, rendering it an important tool for observing live cells as well as unfixed or fixed soft samples with complicated shapes. Taken together, we demonstrate that SICM imaging, especially using an ARS/hopping mode, is a useful technique with unique capabilities for imaging the three-dimensional topography of a range of biological samples under physiologically relevant aqueous conditions.

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