The determination of the characteristics of micro-organisms in clinical specimens is essential for the rapid diagnosis and treatment of infections. A thorough investigation of the nanoscale properties of bacteria can prove to be a fundamental tool. Indeed, in the latest years, the importance of high resolution analysis of the properties of microbial cell surfaces has been increasingly recognized. Among the techniques available to observe at high resolution specific properties of microscopic samples, the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) is the most widely used instrument capable to perform morphological and mechanical characterizations of living biological systems. Indeed, AFM can routinely study single cells in physiological conditions and can determine their mechanical properties with a nanometric resolution. Such analyses, coupled with high resolution investigation of their morphological properties, are increasingly used to characterize the state of single cells.
In this work, we exploit the capabilities and peculiarities of AFM to analyze the mechanical properties of Escherichia coli in order to evidence with a high spatial resolution the mechanical properties of its structure. In particular, we will show that the bacterial membrane is not mechanically uniform, but contains stiffer areas. The force volume investigations presented in this work evidence for the first time the presence and dynamics of such structures. Such information is also coupled with a novel stiffness tomography technique, suggesting the presence of stiffer structures present underneath the membrane layer that could be associated with bacterial nucleoids. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.