Measuring the nonconservative force field in an optical trap and imaging biopolymer networks with Brownian motion
Optical tweezers have been widely used by biophysicists to measure forces in single molecular processes, such as the force of a motor molecule walking and the force of a DNA molecule winding and unwinding. In these and similar force measurements, the usual assumption is that the force applied to a particle inside the tweezers is proportional to the displacement of the particle away from the trap center like Hookean springs, which would imply that the force field is conservative. However, the Gaussian beam model has indicated that the force field generated by optical tweezers is actually nonconservative, yet no experiments have measured or accounted for this effect. We introduce an experimental method -- the local drift method -- that can measure the force field in optical tweezers with high precision without any assumptions about the functional form of the force field. The force field is determined by analyzing the Brownian motion of a trapped particle. We successfully applied this method to different sizes of particles and measured the three dimensional force field with 10 nm spatial resolution and femtonewton precision in force. We find that the force field is indeed nonconservative. The nonconservative contribution increases radially away from the optical axis for both small and large particles. The curl vector field -- a measurement of the nonconservative force field -- reverses direction from counter-clockwise for small particles in the Rayleigh regime to clockwise for large particles in the ray optics regime, consistent with the different scattering force profiles in the two distinct scattering regimes. Together with the thermal fluctuations of the trapped particle, the nonconservative force can cause a complex flux of energy into the system. Optically-confined Brownian motion is further used to probe nanostructures such as a biopolymer network. This technique -- thermal noise imaging -- uses a Brownian particle as a "natural scanner" to explore a biopolymer network by moving the Brownian particle through the network with optical tweezers. The position fluctuations of the probe particle reflect the location of individual filaments as excluded volumes. The resolution of thermal noise imaging is directly coupled to the size of the probe particle. A smaller probe is capable of exploring smaller pore sizes formed by dense network. Previously, a 200 nm polystyrene particle had been used to probe an agar network. In this work, 100 nm gold probe particles are used to enhance the resolution. A 100 nm particle explore a network with mesh 2³ times smaller and therefore enhance the network resolution by 2³ times. A 100 nm particle also improves the imaging speed by a factor of 2 because of its faster diffusion. Three-dimensional thermal noise images of agarose filaments are obtained and a resolution of 10 nm for the position of the filaments is achieved. In addition, a gold particle is trapped with significantly less power than a polystyrene particle of the same size, indicating the possibility for using even smaller gold particles to further improve the resolution.