Revealing the Cell-Material Interface with Nanometer Resolution by Focused Ion Beam/Scanning Electron Microscopy

F. Santoro, W. Zhao, L.M. Joubert, L. Duan, J. Schnitker, Y. van de Burgt, H.Y. Lou, B. Liu, A. Salleo, L. Cui, Yi Cui, B. Cui

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The interface between cells and nonbiological surfaces regulates cell attachment, chronic tissue responses, and ultimately the success of medical implants or biosensors. Clinical and laboratory studies show that topological features of the surface profoundly influence cellular responses; for example, titanium surfaces with nano- and microtopographical structures enhance osteoblast attachment and host-implant integration as compared to a smooth surface. To understand how cells and tissues respond to different topographical features, it is of critical importance to directly visualize the cell-material interface at the relevant nanometer length scale. Here, we present a method for in situ examination of the cell-to-material interface at any desired location, based on focused ion beam milling and scanning electron microscopy imaging to resolve the cell membrane-to-material interface with 10 nm resolution. By examining how cell membranes interact with topographical features such as nanoscale protrusions or invaginations, we discovered that the cell membrane readily deforms inward and wraps around protruding structures, but hardly deforms outward to contour invaginating structures. This asymmetric membrane response (inward vs outward deformation) causes the cleft width between the cell membrane and the nanostructure surface to vary by more than an order of magnitude. Our results suggest that surface topology is a crucial consideration for the development of medical implants or biosensors whose performances are strongly influenced by the cell-to-material interface. We anticipate that the method can be used to explore the direct interaction of cells/tissue with medical devices such as metal implants in the future.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8320-8328
Number of pages9
JournalACS Nano
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2017


  • cell-material interface
  • focused ion beam
  • nanostructures
  • scanning electron microscopy
  • ultrathin resin plasticization


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