Measuring viscoelasticity of soft biological samples using atomic force microscopy
Mechanical properties play important roles at different scales in biology. At the level of a single cell, the mechanical properties mediate mechanosensing and mechanotransduction, while at the tissue and organ levels, changes in mechanical properties are closely connected to disease and physiological processes. Over the past three decades, atomic force microscopy (AFM) has become one of the most widely used tools in the mechanical characterization of soft samples, ranging from molecules, cell organoids and cells to whole tissue. AFM methods can be used to quantify both elastic and viscoelastic properties, and significant recent developments in the latter have been enabled by the introduction of new techniques and models for data analysis. Here, we review AFM techniques developed in recent years for examining the viscoelastic properties of cells and soft gels, describe the main steps in typical data acquisition and analysis protocols, and discuss relevant viscoelastic models and how these have been used to characterize the specific features of cellular and other biological samples. We also discuss recent trends and potential directions for this field.