One of the most successful applications of atomic force microscopy (AFM) in biology involves monitoring the effect of force on single biological molecules, often referred to as force spectroscopy. Such studies generally entail the application of pulling forces of different magnitudes and velocities upon individual molecules to resolve individualistic unfolding/separation pathways and the quantification of the force-dependent rate constants. However, a less recognized variation of this method, the application of compressive force, actually pre-dates many of these “tensile” force spectroscopic studies. Further, beyond being limited to the study of single molecules, these compressive force spectroscopic investigations have spanned samples as large as living cells to smaller, multi-molecular complexes such as viruses down to single protein molecules. Correspondingly, these studies have enabled the detailed characterization of individual cell states, subtle differences between seemingly identical viral structures, as well as the quantification of rate constants of functionally important, structural transitions in single proteins. Here, we briefly review some of the recent achievements that have been obtained with compressive force spectroscopy using AFM and highlight exciting areas of its future development.
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