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Resolving the molecular structure of microtubules under physiological conditions with scanning force microscopy


We have imaged microtubules, essential structural elements of the cytoskeleton in eukaryotic cells, in physiological conditions by scanning force microscopy. We have achieved molecular resolution without the use of cross-linking and chemical fixation methods. With tip forces below 0.3 nN, protofilaments with ~6 nm separation could be clearly distinguished. Lattice defects in the microtubule wall were directly visible, including point defects and protofilament separations. Higher tip forces destroyed the top half of the microtubules, revealing the inner surface of the substrate-attached protofilaments. Monomers could be resolved on these inner surfaces.

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Fig. 1A, B
Fig. 2A, B
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Fig. 4A–C
Fig. 5A–D





N 1-[3-(trimethoxysilyl)propyl]diethylenetriamine


electron microscopy




scanning force microscopy


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We thank Ken Downing for sharing his 3D MT model, Per Bullough for help with image analysis, Fred MacKintosh for helpful discussions, Johanna van Nes and René Koops for help with exploratory experiments, and financial support of the Dutch Foundation for Fundamental Research of Matter (FOM) and ALW/FOM project no. 01FB28/2.

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Correspondence to Iwan A. T. Schaap.

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Schaap, I.A.T., de Pablo, P.J. & Schmidt, C.F. Resolving the molecular structure of microtubules under physiological conditions with scanning force microscopy. Eur Biophys J 33, 462–467 (2004).

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  • Atomic force microscopy
  • Microtubule
  • Scanning force microscopy