Single-molecule techniques in biophysics: a review of the progress in methods and applications
Reports on progress in physics (Print)
Single-molecule biophysics has transformed our understanding of the fundamental molecular processes involved in living biological systems, but also of the fascinating physics of life. Far more exotic than a collection of exemplars of soft matter behaviour, active biological matter lives far from thermal equilibrium, and typically covers multiple length scales from the nanometre level of single molecules up several orders of magnitude to longer length scales in emergent structures of cells,
... es and organisms. Biological molecules are often characterized by an underlying instability, in that multiple metastable free energy states exist which are separated by energy levels of typically just a few multiples of the thermal energy scale of kBT, where kB is the Boltzmann constant and T the absolute temperature, implying complex, dynamic inter-conversion kinetics across this bumpy free energy landscape in the relatively hot, wet environment of real, living biological matter. The key utility of single-molecule biophysics lies in its ability to probe the underlying heterogeneity of free energy states across a population of molecules, which in general is too challenging for conventional ensemble level approaches which measure mean average properties. Parallel developments in both experimental and theoretical techniques have been key to the latest insights and are enabling the development of highly-multiplexed, correlative techniques to tackle previously intractable biological problems. Experimentally, technological developments in the sensitivity and speed of biomolecular detectors, the stability and efficiency of light sources, probes and microfluidics, have enabled and driven the study of heterogeneous behaviours both in vitro and in vivo that were previously undetectable by ensemble methods...