Originally invented for topographic imaging, atomic force microscopy (AFM) has evolved into a multifunctional biological toolkit, enabling to measure structural and functional details of cells and molecules. Its versatility and the large scope of information it can yield make it an invaluable tool in any biologically oriented laboratory, where researchers need to perform characterizations of living samples as well as single molecules in quasi-physiological conditions and with nanoscale resolution. In the last 20 years, AFM has revolutionized the characterization of microbial cells by allowing a better understanding of their cell wall and of the mechanism of action of drugs and by becoming itself a powerful diagnostic tool to study bacteria. Indeed, AFM is much more than a high-resolution microscopy technique. It can reconstruct force maps that can be used to explore the nanomechanical properties of microorganisms and probe at the same time the morphological and mechanical modifications induced by external stimuli. Furthermore it can be used to map chemical species or specific receptors with nanometric resolution directly on the membranes of living organisms. In summary, AFM offers new capabilities and a more in-depth insight in the structure and mechanics of biological specimens with an unrivaled spatial and force resolution. Its application to the study of bacteria is extremely significant since it has already delivered important information on the metabolism of these small microorganisms and, through new and exciting technical developments, will shed more light on the real-time interaction of antimicrobial agents and bacteria.
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Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.