JILA researchers have engineered a short, flexible, reusable probe for the atomic force microscope (AFM) that enables state-of-the-art precision and stability in picoscale force measurements. Shorter, softer and more agile than standard and recently enhanced AFM probes, the JILA tips will benefit nanotechnology and studies of folding and stretching in biomolecules such as proteins and DNA.
An AFM probe is a cantilever, shaped like a tiny diving board with a small, atomic-scale point on the free end. To measure forces at the molecular scale in a liquid, the probe attaches its tip to a molecule such as a protein and pulls; the resulting deflection of the cantilever is measured. The forces are in the realm of piconewtons, or trillionths of a newton. One newton is roughly the weight of a small apple.
The new probe design, described in ACS Nano,* is the JILA research group's third recent advance in AFM technology. JILA is jointly operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and University of Colorado Boulder.
The group previously improved AFM position stability by using laser beams to sense motion** and removing the gold coating from long probe tips, or cantilevers, to enhance long-term force stability.*** However, removing the gold reduces the strength of the signal being measured, and using long cantilevers leads to other measurement problems such as slower response to dynamic events like protein unfolding.
The latest modification overcomes these and other issues, improving precision without loss of stability, speed, or sensitivity. JILA researchers used a focused ion beam to cut a hole in the center of a short commercial cantilever and thinned the remaining support structures, thereby reducing the cantilever's stiffness and friction near surfaces. The result is excellent long-term stability and improved short-term precision, respectively, in AFM force measurements.
JILA researchers a
|Contact: Laura Ost|
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)