Scanning tunneling microscopy of insulators and biological specimens based on lateral conductivity of ultrathin water films

Science. 1994 Dec 2;266(5190):1538-40. doi: 10.1126/science.7985024.


Scanning tunneling microscopy is based on the flow of an electrical current and thus cannot be used to directly image insulating material. It has been found, however, that a very thin film of water (about one monolayer) adsorbed to a surface exhibits a surprisingly high conductivity that is sufficient to allow scanning tunneling microscope imaging at currents below 1 picoampere. Hydrophilic insulators, such as glass and mica, can thus be imaged in humid air. The same is true for biological specimens deposited on such surfaces, as demonstrated by the scanning tunneling microscope imaging of plasmid DNA on mica.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • 1,2-Dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine / chemistry
  • Adsorption
  • Aluminum Silicates
  • DNA / ultrastructure*
  • Electric Conductivity
  • Electrodes
  • Glass
  • Microscopy, Scanning Tunneling / instrumentation
  • Microscopy, Scanning Tunneling / methods*
  • Phosphatidylethanolamines / chemistry
  • Plasmids
  • Water


  • Aluminum Silicates
  • Phosphatidylethanolamines
  • Water
  • 1,2-Dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine
  • 1,2-dipalmitoyl-3-phosphatidylethanolamine
  • DNA
  • mica