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Atomic force microscope used to measure how well live bacteria stick


Goal is to create better filters

Virginia Tech researchers are using a modified form of atomic force microscopy (AFM) to observe at subatomic levels the efficiency of the attachment of bacteria to silica surfaces.

The geological scientists are simulating environments similar to ground water in sandy soils. Sticking efficiency of bacteria has not been previously measured experimentally using the AFM.

Graduate student Tracy Cail will report the research results at the 226th American Chemical Society National Meeting in New York City September 7-11.

She reported in March on her initial experiments to see if the AFM could be used to measure sticking efficiencies at the nanoscale ( - also the first such experiments. Virginia Tech researchers have developed a cantilever for use in the AFM that allows them to study the attractions between microparticles.

"The same technique can also be applied to natural systems," she says.

Cail is developing a new method for predicting how bacteria and other contaminants can be transported in groundwater. "If we understand how they stick to various surfaces then we can use the information to design filters," she says.

For her research, Cail is using the bacteria, Enterococcus faecalis, because they are easy to model. "They look like the carboxylated polystyrene beads I used to do the initial work with the AFM. They are spherical, hard, and smooth, and are about 1 micron."

The bacteria are also plentiful. "They thrive in the Virginia Tech duck pond. They live naturally in human intestines but are serious hospital pathogens," she says.

"I’m looking at groundwater applications, but there is an area for expansion in terms of controls in hospital environments," she adds.

She found that Enterococcus faecalis are surprisingly robust. "They survived being put in a vacuum, long periods without food, and the imaging process."

Cail and geological sciences professor Michael Hochella Jr. will present "Measured sticking efficiencies of Enterococcus faecalis using atomic force microscopy" during the Division of Geochemistry poster session, 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Sept.9, in the Javits Convention Center North Pavillion.

Cail will complete her Ph.D. in geological sciences from Virginia Tech in December and work as a postdoctoral associate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the area of contaminant transport. A native of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, she did her undergraduate work at St Francis Xavier University and her master’s degree work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Researchers’ contact information: Tracy Cail at or 540-231-8575, or her major professor and co-author Michael F. Hochella Jr. at 540-231-6227 or

Susan Trulove | EurekAlert!
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