Editorial Feature

What is Atomic Force Microscopy for Cell Imaging?

Nixx Photography / Shutterstock

Atomic force microscopy is a robust, multi-purpose imaging technique that allows for three-dimensional imaging, manipulation, and analysis of biological specimens, all the way down to the molecular level.

Technically a kind of scanning probe microscope, an atomic force microscope (AFM) passes an extremely fine probe over a sample surface to create 3D topographical maps. An AFM tip can be customized in various ways to investigate the many qualities of a cell at the nanoscale.

For instance, an AFM also allows for the detection of temporal shifts in the mechanical qualities of a cell, such as a cell membrane stiffness or elasticity. Viral relationships and cell structure can also be examined in vitro as a result of the probing abilities of an AFM. This scientific tool allows scientists to acquire insights and data that were previously unavailable.

The reason AFM is effective and succeeds where other probing methods for cell biology have failed due to the technology’s capability to make measurements in near-physiological conditions. The technology has, for example, permitted for virologists to quantitatively observe initial interactions between viruses and cells. This is integral for studying the primary stages of infection for various viruses and can lead to extremely useful discoveries for medical and life science researchers.

The systems of interest in cell biology studies are almost exclusive to living cells. Researchers can replicate real-life physiological factors by growing tissues in media at suitable temperatures. It is very hard for other analytical technologies to carry out precise measurements of viscoelastic qualities and mechanical interactions under these conditions. AFM is also one of the only tools for imaging live cultured cells while analyzing the elastic and viscoelastic reactions of cells to medications, mechanical stress or other factors.

Observing the mechanical reactions of cells to mechanical stimuli can also allow for an analysis of cell rigidity and viscoelastic changes over time, which is critical for research into cancer and cytotoxic treatments, as shifts in viscoelasticity and stiffness are biomarkers of metastatic potential.

Modes of Operation

An AFM can be used in different ways to gain many different insights into the composition of a cell.

In contact mode, the tip of the probe is in actual contact with the sample’s surface. In lateral force microscopy, lateral deflections of the probe are used to determine surface friction. In non-contact mode, the topography of a sample can be determined by oscillating the probe tip near its resonant frequency and measuring changes in the vibration caused by Van der Wall forces. In phase imaging mode, the phase shift of an oscillating probe can be used to map different surface qualities, such as adhesion and elasticity.

AFM in Cell Biology

Over the past 15 years or so, the AFM has come to be seen as a useful tool for obtaining nanostructure details and biomechanical qualities of cells. The AFM-based spectroscopy is also especially well-suited to evaluate cell adhesion and rheological qualities. The most critical advantage of an AFM for biology is the investigation of biological specimens directly in their natural environment, particularly in vitro, in situ, and even in vivo – all without sample preparation. An AFM can also research the exterior of living cells down to the molecular forces.

Moreover, there is not any restriction in the kind of test medium with respect to aqueous, non-aqueous, temperature, or chemical makeup.

AFM modality is a novel method used to investigate biological membranes, which have been a major focus of biological researches. In particular, the AFM has been used to can scan the interaction between the supported lipid bilayers of a membrane and medications.

The microbial exterior has been another major focus, and the AMF has allowed for the quantitative examination of the molecular interactions found there. The AFM allows not just high-resolution imaging of microbial exteriors, but also a direct analysis of molecular forces and the physical qualities found there.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Brett Smith

Written by

Brett Smith

Brett Smith is an American freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Buffalo State College and has 8 years of experience working in a professional laboratory.


Please use one of the following formats to cite this article in your essay, paper or report:

  • APA

    Smith, Brett. (2019, December 11). What is Atomic Force Microscopy for Cell Imaging?. AZoNano. Retrieved on June 16, 2024 from https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=5332.

  • MLA

    Smith, Brett. "What is Atomic Force Microscopy for Cell Imaging?". AZoNano. 16 June 2024. <https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=5332>.

  • Chicago

    Smith, Brett. "What is Atomic Force Microscopy for Cell Imaging?". AZoNano. https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=5332. (accessed June 16, 2024).

  • Harvard

    Smith, Brett. 2019. What is Atomic Force Microscopy for Cell Imaging?. AZoNano, viewed 16 June 2024, https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=5332.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a review, update or anything you would like to add to this article?

Leave your feedback
Your comment type

While we only use edited and approved content for Azthena answers, it may on occasions provide incorrect responses. Please confirm any data provided with the related suppliers or authors. We do not provide medical advice, if you search for medical information you must always consult a medical professional before acting on any information provided.

Your questions, but not your email details will be shared with OpenAI and retained for 30 days in accordance with their privacy principles.

Please do not ask questions that use sensitive or confidential information.

Read the full Terms & Conditions.