Single-molecule Imaging on Living Bacterial Cell Surface by High-Speed AFM

J Mol Biol. 2012 Sep 14;422(2):300-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2012.05.018. Epub 2012 May 18.


Advances in microscopy have contributed to many biologic discoveries. Electron microscopic techniques such as cryo-electron tomography are remarkable tools for imaging the interiors of bacterial cells in the near-native state, whereas optical microscopic techniques such as fluorescence imaging are useful for following the dynamics of specific single molecules in living cells. Neither technique, however, can be used to visualize the structural dynamics of a single molecule at high resolution in living cells. In the present study, we used high-speed atomic force microscopy (HS-AFM) to image the molecular dynamics of living bacterial cell surfaces. HS-AFM visualizes the dynamic molecular processes of isolated proteins at sub-molecular resolution without the need for complicated sample preparation. In the present study, magnetotactic bacterial cells were anchored in liquid medium on substrate modified by poly-L-lysine and glutaraldehyde. High-resolution HS-AFM images of live cell surfaces showed that the bacterial outer membrane was covered with a net-like structure comprising holes and the hole rims framing them. Furthermore, HS-AFM captured the dynamic movement of the surface ultrastructure, showing that the holes in the net-like structure slowly diffused in the cell surface. Nano-dissection revealed that porin trimers constitute the net-like structure. Here, we report for the first time the direct observation of dynamic molecular architectures on a live cell surface using HS-AFM.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure*
  • Magnetospirillum / metabolism
  • Magnetospirillum / ultrastructure
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods*


  • Membrane Proteins