Difato Francesco

Neuroscience research has recently taken advantage of optical approaches to record, modulate and manipulate the physiological activity of neurons. Studies on the nature of light-matter interactions have paved the way for emerging fields in biophysics and neuroscience, while advances in optical systems have provided minimally invasive approaches for studying the structure and function of living cells. Precise engineering of light-matter interactions allows contact-free manipulation of biological samples, such as the use of optical tweezers and laser dissector for precise and reproducible “optical surgery”. At the same time, molecular engineering has provided a new generation of optical probes to detect and modulate the activity of living cells.

My work has focused on the development of optical systems for the precise and controlled spatio-temporal manipulation of biological samples, and on the integration of optical setups with electrophysiological recording devices to study the central nervous system at various levels of complexity.

UOPTYoungaward  Taylor

  The Koh Young Best Paper Award 2012


Integration of Optical Manipulation and Electrophysiological Tools to Modulate and Record Activity in Neural Networks.  F. Difato, L. Schibalsky, F. Benfenati, and A. Blau. International Journal of Optomechatronics, 2011, 5(3), 191-216.

Corresponding Author: Difato F.

Photonic-neurosurgery lab @ JOVE

click on the image below to watch the published video article


Force spectroscopy

Force spectroscopy

on Saturday, 17 March 2012. Posted in Home

Force spectroscopy

Complex biological phenomena, such as cell differentiation and locomotion, require long range tracking capabilities with nanometer resolution over an extended period, to resolve molecular processes on the cellular scale.
Living cells face mechanical forces which are converted into biochemical signals and integrated into the cellular responses (mechanotransduction). Therefore, the development of new techniques for exerting mechanical stresses on cells and observe their responses is crucial to clarify the molecule‐and cell‐level structures that may participate in mechanotransduction.
Forces can be exerted on a cell by a variety of experimental techniques. If the force is in the right range of magnitude it is capable of eliciting a biological response from the cell. The magnitude of force that can be produced by a single myosin molecule8, consistent with the theory that active cellular  contraction can induce cell signalling. Therefore, all this would suggest that the critical values of force exerted on a single molecule fall within the pN range. Interestingly to notice, this is also the range of forces exerted on the particle in an optical
trap by the radiation pressure of light. This relatively young technique provides the nonmechanical manipulation of the biological particles such as virus, living cells and subcellular organelles. Moreover, optical tweezers are recognized single-molecule technique to resolve forces and motion on the molecular scale.
Optical Tweezers are now being used in the investigation of an increasing number of biochemical and biophysical processes, from the mechanical properties of biological polymers to the multitude of molecular machines that drive the internal dynamics of the cell.
The combination of chemical and mechanical stimulation is useful and relevant in cell biology, since cells test the extracellular matrix rigidity during their differentiation.
Cells need to organize their internal space and interact with their environment. The network filaments, i.e., the cytoskeleton, represent connections to distribute tensile forces through the cytoplasm to nucleus as a signaling pathway. Transmembrane receptor, as integrins, function as mechanoreceptors and provide a preferred path to transfer mechanical forces across cell surface. During motion, cells organize integrins distribution in clusters at special complexes called focal adhesions. Forces transmitted to the cytoskeleton from these sites produce a stress in associated cytoskeleton molecules which can be converted in gene expression, protein recruitment at local sites and dynamic cytoskeleton architecture modulation. Thus cell shape and stability is the effect of a mechanical force balance between cytoskeleton traction forces and extracellular substrate local rigidity. Optical tweezers can be utilized to measure and analyze the force operated by cells in exploratory motion and therefore to  understand how cell operate mechanic transduction. With optical microscopy, it is possible to follow the motion of the cell, but force
measurements permit to quantify how many molecular motors are involved in a movement and therefore to quantify how much the molecular machinery of the cell is recruited in such action. This means that thanks to force measurement, it is possible to distinguish random motion from well organized shift of the cell.
It has been observed that filopodia, which explore the environment by rapidly moving in all directions, modulate their activity changing the duration of the collision with a bead, in response to different stiffness of the load. This could represent sensing of the obstacle force and is in agreement with measurements on single  microtubule catastrophic time modulation. Lamellipodia, which follow the pathway analyzed by filopodia, showed a more complex
behavior in response to the obstacle: sometimes, they entirely retracted, other times they moved around it to progress forward or they removed the obstacle by lifting it and giving it back. Lamellipodia have a more differentiated structure and are thought to exert a force with variable directions in space. Therefore, multi‐tweezers measurements have been applied to understand their overall organization and to measure complex forces exerted during growth cone motion.
This kind of measurements can be used to understand the  response of the cells to molecular cues or mechanic‐chemical stimuli localized in the trapping volume, or to understand the mechanisms and which molecules are involved in different steps of motor planning. Moreover,  when the system is working in force-clamp condition, can be exploited  to study the role of statically and dynamically applied forces in neuronal differentiation.

Structured light

Force spectroscopy

Growth cone navigation


Laser Dissection

Axon Regeneration