Mechanical properties of complex biological systems using AFM-based force spectroscopy
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An atomic force microscope (AFM) was designed and built to study the mechanical properties of small collagen fibrils and the plasma membrane of living cells. Collagen is a major component of bone, skin and connective tissues, and is abundant in the extracellular matrix (ECM). Because of its abundance, an understanding of how disease affects collagen mechanics is crucial in disease prevention efforts. Two levels of type I collagen structure were investigated, subfibrils (on the order of 1 [mu] m in length) and longer fibrils. Comparisons were made between measurements of wild-type (wt) collagen and collagen from the mouse model of osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). Significant differences between OI and wt collagen were observed, primarily that intermolecular bonds in OI collagen fibrils are weaker than in wt, or not ruptured, as in the case of OI subfibrils. As cells interact with collagen in the ECM, the mechanical properties of the plasma membrane are also of great interest. Membrane tethers were extracted from living cells under varied conditions in order to assess the contributions of membrane-associated macromolecules such as the actin cytoskeleton and the glycocalyx, as well as intracellular signaling processes triggered by thapsigargin. Tether extraction force was found to be sensitive to all of these altered conditions, suggesting that tether extraction may be used to monitor various cellular processes.