A technique for exciting fluorescence exclusively from regions of contact between cultured cells and the substrate is presented. The technique utilizes the evanescent wave of a totally internally reflecting laser beam to excite only those fluorescent molecules within one light wavelength or less of the substrate surface. Demonstrations of this technique are given for two types of cell cultures: rat primary myotubes with acetylcholine receptors labeled by fluorescent alpha-bungarotoxin and human skin fibroblasts labeled by a fluorescent lipid probe. Total internal reflection fluorescence examination of cells appears to have promising applications, including visualization of the membrane and underlying cytoplasmic structures at cell-substrate contacts, dramatic reduction of autofluorescence from debris and thick cells, mapping of membranes topography, and visualization of reversible bound fluorescent ligands at membrane receptors.

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