Cell mechanics is a novel label-free biomarker for indicating cell states and pathological changes. The advent of atomic force microscopy (AFM) provides a powerful tool for quantifying the mechanical properties of single living cells in aqueous conditions. The wide use of AFM in characterizing cell mechanics in the past two decades has yielded remarkable novel insights in understanding the development and progression of certain diseases, such as cancer, showing the huge potential of cell mechanics for practical applications in the field of biomedicine. In this paper, we reviewed the utilization of AFM to characterize cell mechanics. First, the principle and method of AFM single-cell mechanical analysis was presented, along with the mechanical responses of cells to representative external stimuli measured by AFM. Next, the unique changes of cell mechanics in two types of physiological processes (stem cell differentiation, cancer metastasis) revealed by AFM were summarized. After that, the molecular mechanisms guiding cell mechanics were analyzed. Finally the challenges and future directions were discussed.
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