Indentation and adhesive probing of a cell membrane with AFM: theoretical model and experiments

Biophys J. 2005 Nov;89(5):3203-13. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.105.063826. Epub 2005 Aug 19.


In probing adhesion and cell mechanics by atomic force microscopy (AFM), the mechanical properties of the membrane have an important if neglected role. Here we theoretically model the contact of an AFM tip with a cell membrane, where direct motivation and data are derived from a prototypical ligand-receptor adhesion experiment. An AFM tip is functionalized with a prototypical ligand, SIRPalpha, and then used to probe its native receptor on red cells, CD47. The interactions prove specific and typical in force, and also show in detachment, a sawtooth-shaped disruption process that can extend over hundreds of nm. The theoretical model here that accounts for both membrane indentation as well as membrane extension in tip retraction incorporates membrane tension and elasticity as well as AFM tip geometry and stochastic disruption. Importantly, indentation depth proves initially proportional to membrane tension and does not follow the standard Hertz model. Computations of detachment confirm nonperiodic disruption with membrane extensions of hundreds of nm set by membrane tension. Membrane mechanical properties thus clearly influence AFM probing of cells, including single molecule adhesion experiments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Differentiation / chemistry
  • Biophysics / methods
  • CD47 Antigen / biosynthesis
  • CD47 Antigen / chemistry
  • COS Cells
  • Cell Adhesion
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism
  • Fluorescent Dyes / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Receptors, Immunologic / chemistry
  • Recombinant Proteins / chemistry
  • Software
  • Time Factors
  • Transfection


  • Antigens, Differentiation
  • CD47 Antigen
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • SIRPA protein, human