The scanning tunneling microscope (STM) was developed by physicists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in 1982 to investigate the surfaces of solids, such as silicon (Physical Review Letters 49:57, 1982). Binnig and Rohrer, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for the invention of STM, were quick to recognize the great potential of their instrument in biology and chemistry.

Imaging with STM can be done only on electrically conducting substrates, however, which has presented problems for biological applications. A second instrument, the atomic force microscope (AFM), invented by Binnig in 1986 - this time along with Calvin Quate and Christopher Gerber -- is not hampered by this limitation (Physical Review Letters, 56:930, 1986). Although at present most research using these tools is being conducted in the fields of physics, chemistry, and materials science, applications in biology are growing rapidly.

How they Work


Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!