Single-molecule biology has matured in recent years, driven to greater sophistication by the development of increasingly advanced experimental techniques. A progressive appreciation for its unique strengths is attracting research that spans an exceptionally broad swath of physiological phenomena—from the function of nucleosomes to protein diffusion in the cell membrane. Newfound enthusiasm notwithstanding, the single-molecule approach is limited to an intrinsically defined set of biological questions; such limitation applies to all experimental approaches, and an explicit statement of the boundaries delineating each set offers a guide to most fruitfully orienting in vitro single-molecule research in the future. Here, we briefly describe a simple conceptual framework to categorize how submolecular, molecular and intracellular processes are studied. We highlight the domain of single-molecule biology in this scheme, with an emphasis on its ability to probe various forms of heterogeneity inherent to populations of discrete biological macromolecules. We then give a general overview of our high-throughput DNA curtain methodology for studying protein–nucleic acid interactions, and by contextualizing it within this framework, we explore what might be the most enticing avenues of future research. We anticipate that a focus on single-molecule biology's unique strengths will suggest a new generation of experiments with greater complexity and more immediately translatable physiological relevance.
One contribution of 12 to a Theme Issue ‘Single molecule cellular biophysics: combining physics, biochemistry and cell biology to study the individual molecules of life’.
- © 2012 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.