Looking Inside Plant Cell Walls

The Science

The recalcitrance of plant cell walls to degradation is a major hurdle for the cost effective production of biofuels from biomass. This is further complicated by our inability to characterize plant materials with sufficient spatial resolution to understand the degradation process. Researchers at the DOE Bioenergy Sciences Center (BESC) at Oak Ridge have developed a new imaging system that provides atomic-resolution, non-destructive characterization of the physical properties of biological tissues and other samples. Called Mode-Synthesizing Atomic Force Microscopy, the new system extends traditional Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) which uses a force-sensing cantilever with a sharp tip to measure the topography and other properties of surfaces. The new technique provides subsurface information otherwise unavailable through AFM and 50 nm resolution for imaging plant polymers. This new technique provides access to high resolution plant structure and chemistry within native and pretreated plant cell walls.

The Impact

The technology was developed as an intermediate step toward technology that will enable molecular-level, spectroscopic measurements of plant tissues, and is receiving a 2010 R&D 100 award.


Tetard L., Passian A., and Thundat T. 2010. “New Modes for Subsurface Atomic Force Microscopy Through Nanomechanical Coupling,” Nature Nanotechnology 5, 105–9.