Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Vamsi K. Yadavalli


Biomolecules on cell surfaces play critical roles in diverse biological and physiological processes. However, conventional bulk scale techniques are unable to clarify the density and distribution of specific biomolecules in situ on single, living cell surfaces at the micro or nanoscale. In this work, a single cell analysis technique based on Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) is developed to spatially identify biomolecules and characterize nanomechanical properties on single cell surfaces. The unique advantage of these AFM-based techniques lies in the ability to operate in situ (in a non-destructive fashion) and in real time, under physiological conditions or controlled micro-environments.

First, AFM-based force spectroscopy was developed to study the fundamental biophysics of the heparin/thrombin interaction at the molecular level. Based on force spectroscopy, a force recognition mapping strategy was developed and optimized to spatially detect single protein targets on non-biological surfaces. This platform was then translated to the study of complex living cell surfaces. Specific carbohydrate compositions and changes in their distribution, as well as elasticity change were obtained by monitoring Bacillus cells sporulation process.

The AFM-based force mapping technique was applied to different cellular systems to develop a cell surface biomolecule library. Nanoscale imaging combined with carbohydrate mapping was used to evaluate inactivation methods and growth temperatures effects on Yersinia pestis surface. A strategy to image cells in real time was coupled with hydrophobicity mapping technique to monitor the effect of antimicrobials (antimicrobial polymer and copper) on Escherichia coli and study their killing mechanisms. The single spore hydrophobicity mapping was used to localize the exosporium structure and potentially reconstruct culture media. The descriptions of cell surface DNA on single human epithelial cells potentially form a novel tool for forensic identification.

Overall, these nanoscale tools to detect and assess changes in cell behavior and function over time, either as a result of natural state changes or when perturbed, will further our understanding of fundamental biological processes and lead to novel, robust methods for the analysis of individual cells. Real time analysis of cells can be used for the development of lab-on-chip type assays for drug design and testing or to test the efficacy of antimicrobials.


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