Atomic force microscopy is one of the few techniques that allow analysis of biological recognition processes at the single-molecule level. A major limitation of this approach is the nonspecific interaction between the force sensor and substrate. We have modeled the nonspecific interaction by looking at the interaction potential between a conical Si3N4 tip with a spherical end face and a mica surface in solution, using DLVO (Derjaguin, Landau, Verwey, Overbeek) theory and numerical calculations. Insertion of the tip-sample potential in a simulation of an approach-retract cycle of the cantilever gives the well-known force-distance curve. Simulating a force-distance curve at low salt concentration predicts a discrete hopping of the tip, caused by thermal fluctuations. This hopping behavior was observed experimentally and gave rise to a novel approach to making measurements in adhesion mode that essentially works in the repulsive regime. The distance between tip and sample will still be small enough to allow spacer-involved specific interactions, and the percentage of nonspecific interactions of the bare tip with the mica is minimized. We have validated this physical model by imaging intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (ICAM-1) antigen with a tip functionalized with anti-ICAM-1 antibody. The measurement demonstrated that a significant decrease in the number of nonspecific interactions was realized, and the topographical image quality and the specific bonding capability of the tip were not affected.
Willemsen, O. H., Snel, M. M. E., Kuipers, L., Figdor, C., Greve, J., & de Grooth, B. G. (1999). A Physical Approach to Reduce Nonspecific Adhesion in Molecular Recognition Atomic Force Microscopy. Biophysical journal, 76(2), 716-724. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3495(99)77238-3