Interpreting the widespread nonlinear force spectra of intermolecular bonds
Single molecule force spectroscopy probes the strength, lifetime, and energetic details of intermolecular interactions in a simple experiment. A growing number of these studies have reported distinctly nonlinear trends in rupture force with loading rate that are typically explained in conventional models by invoking complex escape pathways. Recent analyses suggested that these trends should be expected even for simple barriers based on the basic assumptions of bond rupture dynamics and thus may represent the norm rather than the exception. Here we explore how these nonlinear trends reflect the two fundamental regimes of bond rupture: (i) a near-equilibrium regime, produced either by bond reforming in the case of a single bond or by asynchronized rupture of multiple individual bonds, and (ii) a kinetic regime produced by fast, non-equilibrium bond rupture. We analyze both single- and multi-bonded cases, describe the full evolution of the system as it transitions between near- and far-from-equilibrium loading regimes, and show that both interpretations produce essentially identical force spectra. Data from 10 different molecular systems show that this model provides a comprehensive description of force spectra for a diverse suite of bonds over experimentally relevant loading rates, removes the inconsistencies of previous interpretations of transition state distances, and gives ready access to both kinetic and thermodynamic information about the interaction. These results imply that single-molecule binding free energies for a vast number of bonds have already been measured.