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Atomic Force Microscopy in Imaging of Viruses and Virus-Infected Cells


Atomic force microscopy (AFM) can visualize almost everything pertinent to structural virology and at resolutions that approach those for electron microscopy (EM). Membranes have been identified, RNA and DNA have been visualized, and large protein assemblies have been resolved into component substructures. Capsids of icosahedral viruses and the icosahedral capsids of enveloped viruses have been seen at high resolution, in some cases sufficiently high to deduce the arrangement of proteins in the capsomeres as well as the triangulation number (T). Viruses have been recorded budding from infected cells and suffering the consequences of a variety of stresses. Mutant viruses have been examined and phenotypes described. Unusual structural features have appeared, and the unexpectedly great amount of structural nonconformity within populations of particles has been documented. Samples may be imaged in air or in fluids (including culture medium or buffer), in situ on cell surfaces, or after histological procedures. AFM is nonintrusive and nondestructive, and it can be applied to soft biological samples, particularly when the tapping mode is employed. In principle, only a single cell or virion need be imaged to learn of its structure, though normally images of as many as is practical are collected. While lateral resolution, limited by the width of the cantilever tip, is a few nanometers, height resolution is exceptional, at approximately 0.5 nm. AFM produces three-dimensional, topological images that accurately depict the surface features of the virus or cell under study. The images resemble common light photographic images and require little interpretation. The structures of viruses observed by AFM are consistent with models derived by X-ray crystallography and cryo-EM.

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