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Kaltenecker, Korbinian J.; Gölz, Thorsten; Bau, Enrico and Keilmann, Fritz (2021): Infrared-spectroscopic, dynamic near-field microscopy of living cells and nanoparticles in water. In: Scientific reports, Vol. 11, No. 1, 21860 [PDF, 2MB]


Infrared fingerprint spectra can reveal the chemical nature of materials down to 20-nm detail, far below the diffraction limit, when probed by scattering-type scanning near-field optical microscopy (s-SNOM). But this was impossible with living cells or aqueous processes as in corrosion, due to water-related absorption and tip contamination. Here, we demonstrate infrared s-SNOM of water-suspended objects by probing them through a 10-nm thick SiN membrane. This separator stretches freely over up to 250~µm, providing an upper, stable surface to the scanning tip, while its lower surface is in contact with the liquid and localises adhering objects. We present its proof-of-principle applicability in biology by observing simply drop-casted, living E. coli in nutrient medium, as well as living A549 cancer cells, as they divide, move and develop rich sub-cellular morphology and adhesion patterns, at 150~nm resolution. Their infrared spectra reveal the local abundances of water, proteins, and lipids within a depth of ca. 100~nm below the SiN membrane, as we verify by analysing well-defined, suspended polymer spheres and through model calculations. SiN-membrane based s-SNOM thus establishes a novel tool of live cell nano-imaging that returns structure, dynamics and chemical composition. This method should benefit the nanoscale analysis of any aqueous system, from physics to medicine.

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