Probing the compressibility of tumor cell nuclei by combined atomic force-confocal microscopy

Phys Biol. 2013 Dec;10(6):065002. doi: 10.1088/1478-3975/10/6/065002. Epub 2013 Dec 4.


The cell nucleus is the largest and stiffest organelle rendering it the limiting compartment during migration of invasive tumor cells through dense connective tissue. We here describe a combined atomic force microscopy (AFM)-confocal microscopy approach for measurement of bulk nuclear stiffness together with simultaneous visualization of the cantilever-nucleus contact and the fate of the cell. Using cantilevers functionalized with either tips or beads and spring constants ranging from 0.06-10 N m(-1), force-deformation curves were generated from nuclear positions of adherent HT1080 fibrosarcoma cell populations at unchallenged integrity, and a nuclear stiffness range of 0.2 to 2.5 kPa was identified depending on cantilever type and the use of extended fitting models. Chromatin-decondensating agent trichostatin A (TSA) induced nuclear softening of up to 50%, demonstrating the feasibility of our approach. Finally, using a stiff bead-functionalized cantilever pushing at maximal system-intrinsic force, the nucleus was deformed to 20% of its original height which after TSA treatment reduced further to 5% remaining height confirming chromatin organization as an important determinant of nuclear stiffness. Thus, combined AFM-confocal microscopy is a feasible approach to study nuclear compressibility to complement concepts of limiting nuclear deformation in cancer cell invasion and other biological processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Nucleus / chemistry
  • Cell Nucleus / drug effects
  • Cell Nucleus / pathology*
  • Elasticity* / drug effects
  • Equipment Design
  • Fibrosarcoma / chemistry
  • Fibrosarcoma / pathology*
  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Hydroxamic Acids / pharmacology
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / instrumentation
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods*


  • Histone Deacetylase Inhibitors
  • Hydroxamic Acids
  • trichostatin A