Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Discovery to aid study of biological structures, molecules

Researchers in the United States and Spain have discovered that a tool widely used in nanoscale imaging works differently in watery environments, a step toward better using the instrument to study biological molecules and structures.

The researchers demonstrated their new understanding of how the instrument - the atomic force microscope - works in water to show detailed properties of a bacterial membrane and a virus called Phi29, said Arvind Raman, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.

"People using this kind of instrument to study biological structures need to know how it works in the natural watery environments of molecules and how to interpret images," he said.

An atomic force microscope uses a tiny vibrating probe to yield information about materials and surfaces on the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Because the instrument enables scientists to "see" objects far smaller than possible using light microscopes, it could be ideal for studying molecules, cell membranes and other biological structures.

The best way to study such structures is in their wet, natural environments. However, the researchers have now discovered that in some respects the vibrating probe's tip behaves the opposite in water as it does in air, said Purdue mechanical engineering doctoral student John Melcher.

Purdue researchers collaborated with scientists at three institutions in Madrid, Spain: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid and the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología.

Findings, which were detailed in a paper appearing online last week in the U.S. publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are related to the subtle differences in how the instrument's probe vibrates. The probe is caused to oscillate by a vibrating source at its base. However, the tip of the probe oscillates slightly out of synch with the oscillations at the base. This difference in oscillation is referred to as a "phase contrast," and the tip is said to be out of phase with the base.

Although these differences in phase contrast reveal information about the composition of the material being studied, data can't be properly interpreted unless researchers understand precisely how the phase changes in water as well as in air, Raman said.

If the instrument is operating in air, the tip's phase lags slightly when interacting with a viscous material and advances slightly when scanning over a hard surface. Now researchers have learned the tip operates in the opposite manner when used in water: it lags while passing over a hard object and advances when scanning the gelatinous surface of a biological membrane.

Researchers deposited the membrane and viruses on a sheet of mica. Tests showed the differing properties of the inner and outer sides of the membrane and details about the latticelike protein structure of the membrane. Findings also showed the different properties of the balloonlike head, stiff collar and hollow tail of the Phi29 virus, called a bacteriophage because it infects bacteria.

"The findings suggest that phase contrast in liquids can be used to reveal rapidly the intrinsic variations in local stiffness with molecular resolution, for example, by showing that the head and the collar of an individual virus particle have different stiffness," Raman said.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and was conducted at the Birck Nanotechnology Center in Purdue's Discovery Park. The biological membrane images were taken at Purdue, and the virus studies were performed at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

The paper was authored by Melcher; Carolina Carrasco, a postdoctoral researcher at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and the Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid; Purdue postdoctoral researcher Xin Xu; José L. Carrasco, a researcher at Departmento de Estructura de Macomoléculas, Centro Nacional de Biotecnología, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas; Julio Gómez-Herrero and Pedro José de Pablo, both researchers from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; and Raman.

Related Web sites:

Arvind Raman:
Birck Nanotechnology Center:
Discovery Park:
National Science Foundation:
A publication-quality image is available at

Abstract on the research in this release is available at:

Emil Venere | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht First time-lapse footage of cell activity during limb regeneration
25.10.2016 | eLife

nachricht Phenotype at the push of a button
25.10.2016 | Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Enormous dome in central Andes driven by huge magma body beneath it

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

First time-lapse footage of cell activity during limb regeneration

25.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Deep down fracking wells, microbial communities thrive

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>