We have applied in situ atomic force microscopy to directly observe the aggregation of Alzheimer's β-amyloid peptide (Aβ) in contact with two model solid surfaces: hydrophilic mica and hydrophobic graphite. The time course of aggregation was followed by continuous imaging of surfaces remaining in contact with 10-500 μM solutions of Aβ in PBS (pH 7.4). Visualization of fragile nanoscale aggregates of Aβ was made possible by the application of a tapping mode of imaging, which minimizes the lateral forces between the probe tip and the sample. The size and the shape of Aβ aggregates, as well as the kinetics of their formation, exhibited pronounced dependence on the physicochemical nature of the surface. On hydrophilic mica, Aβ formed particulate, pseudomicellar aggregates, which at higher Aβ concentration had the tendency to form linear assemblies, reminiscent of protofibrillar species described recently in the literature. In contrast, on hydrophobic graphite Aβ formed uniform, elongated sheets. The dimensions of those sheets were consistent with the dimensions of β-sheets with extended peptide chains perpendicular to the long axis of the aggregate. The sheets of Aβ were oriented along three directions at 120°to each other, resembling the crystallographic symmetry of a graphite surface. Such substrate-templated self-assembly may be the distinguishing feature of β-sheets in comparison with α-helices. These studies show that in situ atomic force microscopy enables direct assessment of amyloid aggregation in physiological fluids and suggest that Aβ fibril formation may be driven by interactions at the interface of aqueous solutions and hydrophobic substrates, as occurs in membranes and lipoprotein particles in vivo.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3688-3693
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number7
StatePublished - Mar 30 1999


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