Assessing the structure and function of single biomolecules with scanning transmission electron and atomic force microscopes.
ABSTRACT The scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM) have provided a wealth of useful information on a wide variety of biological structures. These instruments have in common that they raster-scan a probe over a sample and are able to address single molecules. In the STEM the probe is a focused electron beam that is deflected by the scan-coils. Detectors collecting the scattered electrons provide quantitative information for each sub-nanometer sized sample volume irradiated. These electron scattering data can be reconstituted to images of single macromolecules or can be integrated to provide the mass of the macromolecules. Samples need to be dehydrated for such quantitative STEM imaging. In contrast, the AFM raster-scans a sharp tip over a sample surface submerged in a buffer solution to acquire information on the sample's surface topography at sub-nanometer resolution. Direct observation of function-related structural changes induced by variation of temperature, pH, ionic strength, and applied force provides insight into the structure-function relationship of macromolecules. Further, the AFM allows single molecules to be addressed and quantitatively unfolded using the tip as nano-tweezers. The performance of these two scanning probe approaches is illustrated by several examples including the chaperonin GroEL, bacterial surface layers, protein crystals, and bacterial appendices.