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Atomic force microscopy as a biophysical tool for nanoscale forensic investigations

NCJ Number
Science & Justice Volume: 61 Issue: 1 Dated: January 2021 Pages: 1-12
Date Published
January 2021
12 pages

While a number of reviews have focused on the use of AFM as an imaging tool for forensic analyses, here we not only discuss these works, but also point to a versatile enhancement in the capabilities of this nanoscale tool – namely its use for force spectroscopy.



The atomic force microscope (AFM) has found its way to the arsenal of tools available to the forensic practitioner for the analysis of samples at the nano and microscales. As a non-destructive probing tool that requires minimal sample preparation, the AFM is very attractive, particularly in the case of minimal or precious sample. To date, the use of the AFM has primarily been in the arena of imaging where it has been complementary to other microscopic examination tools. Forensic applications in the visual examination of evidence such as blood stains, questioned documents, and hair samples have been reported. In this mode, the AFM can determine elastic moduli, adhesion forces, energy dissipation, and the interaction forces between cognate ligands, that can be spatially mapped to provide a unique spatial visualization of properties. Our goals in this review are to provide a context for this capability of the AFM, explain its workings, cover some exemplary works pertaining to forensic sciences, and present a critical analysis on the advantages and disadvantages of this modality. Equipped with this high-resolution tool, imaging and biophysical analysis by the AFM can provide a unique complement to other tools available to the researcher for the analysis and characterization of forensic evidence. (Publisher Abstract)


Date Published: January 1, 2021