Analyzing focal adhesion structure by atomic force microscopy

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review



Atomic force microscopy (AFM) can produce high-resolution topographic images of biological samples in physiologically relevant environments and is therefore well suited for the imaging of cellular surfaces. In this work we have investigated focal adhesion complexes by combined fluorescence microscopy and AFM. To generate high-resolution AFM topographs of focal adhesions, REF52 (rat embryo fibroblast) cells expressing YFP-paxillin as a marker for focal adhesions were de-roofed and paxillin-positive focal adhesions subsequently imaged by AFM. The improved resolution of the AFM topographs complemented the optical images and offered ultrastructural insight into the architecture of focal adhesions. Focal adhesions had a corrugated dorsal surface formed by microfilament bundles spaced 127±50 nm (mean±s.d.) apart and protruding 118±26 nm over the substratum. Within focal adhesions microfilaments were sometimes branched and arranged in horizontal layers separated by 10 to 20 nm. From the AFM topographs focal adhesion volumes could be estimated and were found to range from 0.05 to 0.50 μm3. Furthermore, the AFM topographs show that focal adhesion height increases towards the stress-fiber-associated end at an angle of about 3°. Finally, by correlating AFM height information with fluorescence intensities of YFP-paxillin and F-actin staining, we show that the localization of paxillin is restricted to the ventral half of focal adhesions, whereas F-actin-containing microfilaments reside predominantly in the membrane-distal half.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5315-5323
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of cell science
Issue number22
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2005

External IDs

PubMed 16263758


ASJC Scopus subject areas


  • AFM, Focal adhesions, Paxillin