Although atomic force microscopy is often the method of choice to probe the mechanical response of (sub)micrometer sized biomaterials, the lowest force that can be reliably controlled is limited to ≈0.1 nN. For soft biological samples, like cells, such forces can already lead to a strain large enough to enter the non-elastic deformation regime. To be able to investigate the response of single cells at lower forces we developed a vertical optical trap. The force can be controlled down to single piconewtons and most of the advantages of atomic force microscopy are maintained, such as the symmetrical application of forces at a wide range of loading rates. Typical consequences of moving the focus in the vertical direction, like the interferometric effect between the bead and the coverslip and a shift of focus, were quantified and found to have negligible effects on our measurements. With a fast responding force feedback loop we can achieve deformation rates as high as 50 μm/s, which allow the investigation of the elastic and viscous components of very soft samples. The potential of the vertical optical trap is demonstrated by measuring the linearity of the response of single cells at very low forces and a high bandwidth of deformation rates.
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