'Reverse engineering' is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation, often by taking it apart and analyzing its workings in detail. This approach is a common practice among industrial companies who use it to analyze the competition's products, be it cars or MP3 players, to understand where the latest product improvements come from and how individual components are made. An increasing number of scientists apply a similar approach to nature's own 'micro- and nanotechnology' systems. They believe that learning from nature's designs and engineering successes is more likely to provide the cues for designing practical nanodevices than by simply applying a 'trial and error' approach. The basic idea is that natural materials and systems can be adopted for human use beyond their original purpose in nature. Some examples of 'reverse' biophysics work and have already proven quite useful, for instance the use of individual red blood cells as reliable, ultrasensitive mechanotransducers.
With the advance of nanotechnologies the demand for ever more precise instruments that measure, map and manipulate details at the nanoscale increases as well. For instance, the study of potential distributions with nanoscale resolution becomes increasingly important. In the early days of atomic force microscopy (AFM) the scanning force microscope was used to measure charges, dielectric constants, film thickness of insulating layers, photovoltage, and electrical potential of a given surface. Then, in 1991, the concept of a scanning contact potential microscope was introduced, allowing the simultaneous measurement of topography and contact potential difference. Named the scanning surface potential microscope (SSPM) - also often referred to as Kelvin probe force microscope - this is a variation of the AFM that measures the electrostatic forces (potential) between the probe tip and the surface of a material. Compared with other AFM techniques, the lateral resolution of traditional SSPM, from submicron down to 10 nm, is much lower.
Understanding and manipulating cellular function at the level of individual molecules is within reach. One of the requirements of single molecule techniques is the ability to follow an individual molecule for sufficiently long times in solution. However, it is a challenge to cope with the effects of Brownian motion (the random motion of small particles suspended in a gas or liquid) on this time scale. To meet this challenge, more recently, biomolecules have been encapsulated inside lipid vesicles, which are themselves tethered to a surface. Now, a novel nanocontainer offers controlled permeability functionality which not only is desirable for single molecule imaging but also is a very important property for micro- and nanodevices and for delivery of drugs or imaging agents in vitro and in vivo.
Whenever you read an article about nano this or nano that, chances are you come across a large number of confusing three-letter acronyms - AFM, SFM, SEM, TEM, SPM, FIB, CNT and so on. It seems scientists earn extra kudos when they come up with a new three-letter combination. One of the most important acronyms in nanotechnology is AFM - Atomic Force Microscopy. This instrument has become the most widely used tool for imaging, measuring and manipulating matter at the nanoscale and in turn has inspired a variety of other scanning probe techniques. Originally the AFM was used to image the topography of surfaces, but by modifying the tip it is possible to measure other quantities (for example, electric and magnetic properties, chemical potentials, friction and so on), and also to perform various types of spectroscopy and analysis. Today we take a look at one of the instruments that has it all made possible. So far, over 20,000 AFM-related papers have been published; over 500 patents were issued related to various forms of scanning probe microscopes (SPM); several dozen companies are involved in manufacturing SPM and related instruments, with an annual worldwide turnover of $250-300 million, and approx. 10,000 commercial systems sold (not counting a significant number of home-built systems).
The need for 3D visualization and analysis at high spatial resolution is likely to increase as nanoscience and nanotechnology become increasingly important and nanotomography could play a key role in understanding structure, composition and physico-chemical properties at the nanoscale. Scientists from the Electron Microscopy Group at the University of Cambridge in the UK report that nanotomography is becoming an important tool in the study of the size, shape, distribution and composition of various materials, including nanomaterials.
There is a significant and growing need across the research and medical communities for low-cost, high throughput DNA separation and quantification techniques. The isolation of DNA is a prerequisite step for many molecular biology techniques and experiments. Although single molecule techniques afford extremely high sensitivity, to date, such experiments have remained within the confines of academic and research laboratories. The primary reasons for this state of affairs relate to throughput, detection efficiencies and analysis times. For example, in a conventional solution-based single molecule detection experiment, one can only detect approximately 10,000 molecules per minute, or one molecule every 6 milliseconds. While this may sound a lot, consider that a small drop of water (ca. 5 ml) contains approx. 1.67 x 10e23 molecules, that is 1.67 followed by 23 zeros. At that speed you need over 100 trillion years to detect all the water molecules in this single drop. Using a novel nanopore array developed by researchers in the UK, expect to be able to detect up to 1 million molecules simultaneously in the same 6 millisecond time window, representing an improvement in throughput of over six orders of magnitude (and bringing the timeframe for analyzing the molecules in a single water drop down to some 60 billion years - about five to six times the estimated age of the universe).
In the early 1870s, the German physicist Ernst Karl Abbé formulated a rigorous criterion for being able to resolve two objects in a light microscope. According to his equation, the best resolution achievable with visible light is about 200 nanometers. This theoretical resolution limit of conventional optical imaging methodology was the primary factor motivating the development of recent higher-resolution scanning probe techniques. The interaction of light with an object results in the generation of what is called 'near-field' and 'far-field' light components. The far-field light propagates through space in an unconfined manner and is the visible light utilized in conventional light microscopy. The near-field (or evanescent) light consists of a nonpropagating field that exists near the surface of an object at distances less than a single wavelength of light. So called near-field microscopy beats light's diffraction limit by moving the source very close to the subject to be imaged. When the first theoretical work on a new technique called "scanning near-field optical microscopy" (SNOM or NSOM) appeared in the 1980's, Abbé's classical diffraction limit was overcome, and resolution even down to single molecule level became feasible. However, light microscopy is still the only way to observe the interior of whole, or even living, cells. The use of fluorescent dyes makes it possible to selectively obtain images of individual cell components, for example, proteins. Today, the wavelength dogma has been overcome with the development of the stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscope. Now, the German team that developed STED is reporting layer-by-layer light microscopic nanoscale images of cells and without having to prepare thin sections with a technique called optical 3D far-field microscopy. They use a chemical marker for fluorescence nanoscopy that relies on single-molecule photoswitching.
"Children begin to learn by seeing, hearing, tasting and, above all, by touching. In a very similar approach, we are currently learning to orient ourselves in the nanoworld by 'feeling' materials - not with our fingers, but with microscopes that allow us to probe these materials with atomic resolution." (Robert W. Stark, LMU Munich in "Getting a feeling for the nanoworld"). Researchers' ability to engineer materials and achieve superior electronic, thermal, magnetic, and mechanical properties depends on tools that can identify and characterize material components and their spatial arrangement at the nanoscale. Equally important, understanding structure and function relationships in biological systems also demands tools that can probe structural properties with molecular resolution. Atomic force microscopes (AFM) are the most widely used tools to image matter at the nanoscale. Due to its mechanical operation, the AFM can in principle also perform nanomechanical measurements. This aspect of the AFM has been explored by researchers over the past two decades. However, current state-of-the-art techniques are very slow (it takes about one second for the AFM tip to approach, push into and retract from the surface of a material) and they apply rather large forces during the measurement process that damage the tip and the sample. Researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities have developed a specially designed AFM cantilever tip, the torsional harmonic cantilever (THC), which offers orders of magnitude improvements in temporal resolution, spatial resolution, indentation and mechanical loading compared to conventional tools. With high operating speed, increased force sensitivity and excellent lateral resolution, this tool facilitates practical mapping of nanomechanical properties.