Single-molecule Imaging of Cell Surfaces Using Near-Field Nanoscopy

Acc Chem Res. 2012 Mar 20;45(3):327-36. doi: 10.1021/ar2001167. Epub 2011 Oct 12.


Living cells use surface molecules such as receptors and sensors to acquire information about and to respond to their environments. The cell surface machinery regulates many essential cellular processes, including cell adhesion, tissue development, cellular communication, inflammation, tumor metastasis, and microbial infection. These events often involve multimolecular interactions occurring on a nanometer scale and at very high molecular concentrations. Therefore, understanding how single-molecules localize, assemble, and interact on the surface of living cells is an important challenge and a difficult one to address because of the lack of high-resolution single-molecule imaging techniques. In this Account, we show that atomic force microscopy (AFM) and near-field scanning optical microscopy (NSOM) provide unprecedented possibilities for mapping the distribution of single molecules on the surfaces of cells with nanometer spatial resolution, thereby shedding new light on their highly sophisticated functions. For single-molecule recognition imaging by AFM, researchers label the tip with specific antibodies or ligands and detect molecular recognition signals on the cell surface using either adhesion force or dynamic recognition force mapping. In single-molecule NSOM, the tip is replaced by an optical fiber with a nanoscale aperture. As a result, topographic and optical images are simultaneously generated, revealing the spatial distribution of fluorescently labeled molecules. Recently, researchers have made remarkable progress in the application of near-field nanoscopy to image the distribution of cell surface molecules. Those results have led to key breakthroughs: deciphering the nanoscale architecture of bacterial cell walls; understanding how cells assemble surface receptors into nanodomains and modulate their functional state; and understanding how different components of the cell membrane (lipids, proteins) assemble and communicate to confer efficient functional responses upon cell activation. We anticipate that the next steps in the evolution of single-molecule near-field nanoscopy will involve combining single-molecule imaging with single-molecule force spectroscopy to simultaneously measure the localization, elasticity, and interactions of cell surface molecules. In addition, progress in high-speed AFM should allow researchers to image single cell surface molecules at unprecedented temporal resolution. In parallel, exciting advances in the fields of photonic antennas and plasmonics may soon find applications in cell biology, enabling true nanoimaging and nanospectroscopy of individual molecules in living cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure
  • Cell Wall / chemistry*
  • Cell Wall / ultrastructure
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods*
  • Nanotechnology / methods*