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Force probing of individual molecules inside the living cell is now a reality


Biological systems can be quantitatively explored using single-molecule manipulation techniques such as optical or magnetic tweezers or atomic force microscopy. Though a plethora of discoveries have been accomplished using single-molecule manipulation techniques in vitro, such investigations constantly face the criticism that conditions are too far from being physiologically relevant. Technical achievements now allow scientists to take the next step: to use single-molecule manipulation techniques quantitatively in vivo. Considerable progress has been accomplished in this realm; for example, the interaction between a protein and the membrane of a living cell has been probed, the mechanical properties of individual proteins central for cellular adhesion have been measured and even the action of molecular motors in living cells has been quantified. Here, we review the progress of in vivo single-molecule manipulation with a focus on the special challenges posed by in vivo conditions and how these can be overcome.

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Figure 1: A kinesin motor carrying a force-transducing handle and monitored by optical tweezers inside a living cell.
Figure 2: Magnetic beads are microinjected, attached to DNA plasmids and manipulated by magnetic tweezers.
Figure 3: An AFM maps out a cellular surface, attaches specifically to a protein and performs force spectroscopy on the protein.
Figure 4: Probing membrane protein motility.
Figure 5: AFM investigation of strength of individual proteins involved in cell adhesion.
Figure 6: In vivo quantitative measurements of forces involved in separating daughter nuclei during cell division measured by an orchestra of single-molecule manipulation methods.


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The author acknowledges useful comments from E.J.G. Peterman, N.H. Dekker, C. Selhuber-Unkel and M.A. Sørensen and assistance with the illustrations from artist M. Høst. The author acknowledges financial support from the University of Copenhagen Excellence Program and from the Lundbeck Foundation.

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Correspondence to Lene B Oddershede.

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Oddershede, L. Force probing of individual molecules inside the living cell is now a reality. Nat Chem Biol 8, 879–886 (2012).

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