Research teams from Purdue University and the University of Oxford are collaboratively developing a system which can measure the mechanical properties of living cells. To study the different types of cells they make use of an atomic force microscope. Up until now methods using atomic force microscopes were either too slow or did not have a high enough resolution. Professor Arvind Raman and his team have overcome these limitations and they reported their findings online in Nature Nanotechnology.
Atomic force microscopes make use of a small vibrating probe to gather information about materials and surfaces on the scale of nanometers. It makes it possible to ‘see’ certain objects which cannot be visualized using light microscopes. Therefore such microscopes could prove to be very useful in creating a kind of ‘map’ of mechanical properties of the smallest cellular structures.
The researchers applied their technique to look at three different kinds of cells: bacteria, erythrocytes and rat fibroblasts. Possible applications for this new method are to study how cells adhere to tissues, how they move and how they change shape. You could, for example, monitor how malignant cells change during metastasis and how cells react to mechanical stimuli or to the influence of medications.
Raman said the technique can identify the mechanical properties of different parts of a cell, regardless of the texture. The main advantage is the higher resolution and speed than conventional techniques. This could make it possible to watch living cells and biological processes in real time, which in time can lead to developments in mechanobiology.
Abstract in Nature Nanotechnology: Mapping nanomechanical properties of live cells using multi-harmonic atomic force microscopy