Light-Responsive Polymer Particles as Force Clamps for the Mechanical Unfolding of Target Molecules

Single-molecule force spectroscopy techniques are powerful tools for investigating the mechanical unfolding of biomolecules. However, they are limited in throughput and require dedicated instrumentation. Here, we report a force-generating particle that can unfold target molecules on-demand. The particle consists of a plasmonic nanorod core encapsulated with a thermoresponsive polymer shell. Optical heating of the nanorod leads to rapid collapse of the polymer, thus transducing light into mechanical work to unfold target molecules. The illumination tunes the duration and degree of particle collapse, thus controlling the lifetime and magnitude of applied forces. Single-molecule fluorescence imaging showed reproducible mechanical unfolding of DNA hairpins. We also demonstrate the triggering of 50 different particles in <1 min, exceeding the speed of conventional atomic force microscopy. The polymer force clamp represents a facile and bottom-up approach to force manipulation.