The atomic force microscope (AFM) and related scanning probe microscopes have become resourceful tools to study cells, supramolecular assemblies and single biomolecules, because they allow investigations of such structures in native environments.

Quantitative information has been gathered about the surface structure of membrane proteins to lateral and vertical resolutions of 0.5 nm and 0.1 nm, respectively, about the forces that keep protein–protein and protein–nucleic acid assemblies together as well as single proteins in their native conformation, and about the nanomechanical properties of cells in health and disease. Such progress has been achieved mainly because of constant development of AFM instrumentation and sample preparation methods.

This special issue of Nanotechnology presents papers from leading laboratories in the field of nanobiology, covering a wide range of topics in the form of original and novel scientific contributions. It addresses achievements in instrumentation, sample preparation, automation and in biological applications.

These papers document the creativity and persistence of researchers pursuing the goal to unravel the structure and dynamics of cells, supramolecuar structures and single biomolecules at work. Improved cantilever sensors, novel optical probes, and quantitative data on supports for electrochemical experiments open new avenues for characterizing biological nanomachines down to the single molecule.

Comparative measurements of healthy and metastatic cells promise new methods for early detection of tumors, and possible assessments of drug efficacy. High-speed AFMs document possibilities to monitor crystal growth and to observe large structures at video rate. A wealth of information on amyloid-type fibers as well as on membrane proteins has been gathered by single molecule force spectroscopy—a technology now being automated for large-scale data collection.

With the progress of basic research and a strong industry supporting instrumentation development by improving robustness and reliability and making new instruments available to the community, nanobiology has the potential to develop into a field with great impact on our understanding of the complexity of life, and to provide a major contribution to human health.

•  To check out the latest research on this topic by more than 20 research teams worldwide, go to the special issue (free to read until 31 Jan 2009).