Atomic force microscopy of RNA: State of the art and recent advancements

Peter Schön* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


The atomic force microscope (AFM) has become a powerful tool for the visualization, probing and manipulation of RNA at the single molecule level. AFM measurements can be carried out in buffer solution in a physiological medium, which is crucial to study the structure and function of biomolecules, also allowing studying them at work. Imaging the specimen in its native state is a great advantage compared to other high resolution methods such as electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction. There is no need to stain, freeze or crystallize biological samples. Moreover, compared to NMR spectroscopy for instance, for AFM studies the size of the biomolecules is not limiting. Consequently the AFM allows one also to investigate larger RNA molecules. In particular, structural studies of nucleic acids and assemblies thereof, have been carried out by AFM routinely including ssRNA, dsRNA and nucleoprotein complexes thereof, as well as RNA aggregates and 2D RNA assemblies. These are becoming increasingly important as novel unique building blocks in the emerging field of RNA nanotechnology. In particular by AFM unique information can be obtained on these RNA based assemblies. Moreover, the AFM is of fundamental relevance to study biological relevant RNA interactions and dynamics. In this short review a brief overview will be given on structural studies that have been done related to AFM topographic imaging of RNA, RNA assemblies and aggregates. Finally, an overview on AFM beyond imaging will be provided. This includes force spectroscopy of RNA under physiological conditions in aqueous buffer to probe RNA interaction with proteins and ligands as well as other AFM tip based RNA probing. Important applications include the detection and quantification of RNA in biological samples. A selection of recent highlights and breakthroughs will be provided related to structural and functional studies by AFM. The main intention of this short review to provide the reader with a flavor of what AFM is able to contribute to RNA research and engineering.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)209-219
Number of pages11
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
Early online date24 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • Force spectroscopy
  • RNA
  • RNA assemblies
  • RNA detection
  • RNA interactions
  • RNA ligand
  • RNA protein
  • AFM
  • n/a OA procedure


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