Force Spectroscopy of Single Protein Molecules Using an Atomic Force Microscope

J Vis Exp. 2019 Feb 28:(144). doi: 10.3791/55989.


The determination of the folding process of proteins from their amino acid sequence to their native 3D structure is an important problem in biology. Atomic force microscopy (AFM) can address this problem by enabling stretching and relaxation of single protein molecules, which gives direct evidence of specific unfolding and refolding characteristics. AFM-based single-molecule force-spectroscopy (AFM-SMFS) provides a means to consistently measure high-energy conformations in proteins that are not possible in traditional bulk (biochemical) measurements. Although numerous papers were published to show principles of AFM-SMFS, it is not easy to conduct SMFS experiments due to a lack of an exhaustively complete protocol. In this study, we briefly illustrate the principles of AFM and extensively detail the protocols, procedures, and data analysis as a guideline to achieve good results from SMFS experiments. We demonstrate representative SMFS results of single protein mechanical unfolding measurements and we provide troubleshooting strategies for some commonly encountered problems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force / methods*
  • Nanotechnology / methods*
  • Proteins / chemistry*


  • Proteins