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Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002.

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Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition.

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Looking at the Structure of Cells in the Microscope

A typical animal cell is 10–20 μm in diameter, which is about one-fifth the size of the smallest particle visible to the naked eye. It was not until good light microscopes became available in the early part of the nineteenth century that all plant and animal tissues were discovered to be aggregates of individual cells. This discovery, proposed as the cell doctrine by Schleiden and Schwann in 1838, marks the formal birth of cell biology.

Animal cells are not only tiny, they are also colorless and translucent. Consequently, the discovery of their main internal features depended on the development, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, of a variety of stains that provided sufficient contrast to make those features visible. Similarly, the introduction of the far more powerful electron microscope in the early 1940s required the development of new techniques for preserving and staining cells before the full complexities of their internal fine structure could begin to emerge. To this day, microscopy depends as much on techniques for preparing the specimen as on the performance of the microscope itself. In the discussions that follow, we therefore consider both instruments and specimen preparation, beginning with the light microscope.

Figure 9-1 shows a series of images illustrating an imaginary progression from a thumb to a cluster of atoms. Each successive image represents a tenfold increase in magnification. The naked eye could see features in the first two panels, the resolution of the light microscope would extend to about the fourth panel, and the electron microscope to about the seventh panel. Some of the landmarks in the development of light microscopy are outlined in Table 9-1. Figure 9-2 shows the sizes of various cellular and subcellular structures and the ranges of size that different types of microscopes can visualize.

Figure 9-1. A sense of scale between living cells and atoms.

Figure 9-1

A sense of scale between living cells and atoms. Each diagram shows an image magnified by a factor of ten in an imaginary progression from a thumb, through skin cells, to a ribosome, to a cluster of atoms forming part of one of the many protein molecules (more...)

Table 9-1. Some Important Discoveries in the History of Light Microscopy.

Table 9-1

Some Important Discoveries in the History of Light Microscopy.

Figure 9-2. Resolving power.

Figure 9-2

Resolving power. Sizes of cells and their components are drawn on a logarithmic scale, indicating the range of objects that can be readily resolved by the naked eye and in the light and electron microscopes. The following units of length are commonly (more...)

The Light Microscope Can Resolve Details 0.2 μm Apart

In general, a given type of radiation cannot be used to probe structural details much smaller than its own wavelength. This is a fundamental limitation of all microscopes. The ultimate limit to the resolution of a light microscope is therefore set by the wavelength of visible light, which ranges from about 0.4 μm (for violet) to 0.7 μm (for deep red). In practical terms, bacteria and mitochondria, which are about 500 nm (0.5 μm) wide, are generally the smallest objects whose shape can be clearly discerned in the light microscope; details smaller than this are obscured by effects resulting from the wave nature of light. To understand why this occurs, we must follow what happens to a beam of light waves as it passes through the lenses of a microscope (Figure 9-3).

Figure 9-3. A light microscope.

Figure 9-3

A light microscope. (A) Diagram showing the light path in a compound microscope. Light is focused on the specimen by lenses in the condensor. A combination of objective lenses and eyepiece lenses are arranged to focus an image of the illuminated specimen (more...)

Because of its wave nature, light does not follow exactly the idealized straight ray paths predicted by geometrical optics. Instead, light waves travel through an optical system by a variety of slightly different routes, so that they interfere with one another and cause optical diffraction effects. If two trains of waves reaching the same point by different paths are precisely in phase, with crest matching crest and trough matching trough, they will reinforce each other so as to increase brightness. In contrast, if the trains of waves are out of phase, they will interfere with each other in such a way as to cancel each other partly or entirely (Figure 9-4). The interaction of light with an object changes the phase relationships of the light waves in a way that produces complex interference effects. At high magnification, for example, the shadow of a straight edge that is evenly illuminated with light of uniform wavelength appears as a set of parallel lines, whereas that of a circular spot appears as a set of concentric rings (Figure 9-5). For the same reason, a single point seen through a microscope appears as a blurred disc, and two point objects close together give overlapping images and may merge into one. No amount of refinement of the lenses can overcome this limitation imposed by the wavelike nature of light.

Figure 9-4. Interference between light waves.

Figure 9-4

Interference between light waves. When two light waves combine in phase, the amplitude of the resultant wave is larger and the brightness is increased. Two light waves that are out of phase cancel each other partly and produce a wave whose amplitude, (more...)

Figure 9-5. Edge effects.

Figure 9-5

Edge effects. The interference effects observed at high magnification when light passes the edges of a solid object placed between the light source and the observer are shown here.

The limiting separation at which two objects can still be seen as distinct—the so-called limit of resolution—depends on both the wavelength of the light and the numerical aperture of the lens system used. This latter quantity is a measure of the width of the entry pupil of the microscope, scaled according to its distance from the object; the wider the microscope opens its eye, so to speak, the more sharply it can see (Figure 9-6). Under the best conditions, with violet light (wavelength = 0.4 μm) and a numerical aperture of 1.4, a limit of resolution of just under 0.2 μm can theoretically be obtained in the light microscope. This resolution was achieved by microscope makers at the end of the nineteenth century and is only rarely matched in contemporary, factory-produced microscopes. Although it is possible to enlarge an image as much as one wants—for example, by projecting it onto a screen—it is never possible to resolve two objects in the light microscope that are separated by less than about 0.2 μm; they will appear as a single object.

Figure 9-6. Numerical aperture.

Figure 9-6

Numerical aperture. The path of light rays passing through a transparent specimen in a microscope illustrate the concept of numerical aperture and its relation to the limit of resolution.

We see next how interference and diffraction can be exploited to study unstained cells in the living state. Later we discuss how permanent preparations of cells are made for viewing in the light microscope and how chemical stains are used to enhance the visibility of the cell structures in such preparations.

Living Cells Are Seen Clearly in a Phase-Contrast or a Differential-Interference-Contrast Microscope

The possibility that some components of the cell may be lost or distorted during specimen preparation has always challenged microscopists. The only certain way to avoid the problem is to examine cells while they are alive, without fixing or freezing. For this purpose, light microscopes with special optical systems are especially useful.

When light passes through a living cell, the phase of the light wave is changed according to the cell's refractive index: light passing through a relatively thick or dense part of the cell, such as the nucleus, is retarded; its phase, consequently, is shifted relative to light that has passed through an adjacent thinner region of the cytoplasm. The phase-contrast microscope and, in a more complex way, the differential-interference-contrast microscope, exploit the interference effects produced when these two sets of waves recombine, thereby creating an image of the cell's structure (Figure 9-7). Both types of light microscopy are widely used to visualize living cells.

Figure 9-7. Two ways to obtain contrast in light microscopy.

Figure 9-7

Two ways to obtain contrast in light microscopy. (A) The stained portions of the cell reduce the amplitude of light waves of particular wavelengths passing through them. A colored image of the cell is thereby obtained that is visible in the ordinary way. (more...)

A simpler way to see some of the features of a living cell is to observe the light that is scattered by its various components. In the dark-field microscope, the illuminating rays of light are directed from the side so that only scattered light enters the microscope lenses. Consequently, the cell appears as a bright object against a dark background. With a normal bright-field microscope, the image is obtained by the simple transmission of light through a cell in culture. Images of the same cell obtained by four kinds of light microscopy are shown in Figure 9-8.

Figure 9-8. Four types of light microscopy.

Figure 9-8

Four types of light microscopy. Four images are shown of the same fibroblast cell in culture. All four types of images can be obtained with most modern microscopes by interchanging optical components. (A) Bright-field microscopy. (B) Phase-contrast microscopy. (more...)

Phase-contrast, differential-interference-contrast, and dark-field micros-copy make it possible to watch the movements involved in such processes as mitosis and cell migration. Since many cellular motions are too slow to be seen in real time, it is often helpful to take time-lapse motion pictures or video recordings. Here, successive frames separated by a short time delay are recorded, so that when the resulting picture series or videotape is played at normal speed, events appear greatly speeded up.

Images Can Be Enhanced and Analyzed by Electronic Techniques

In recent years electronic imaging systems and the associated technology of image processing have had a major impact on light microscopy. They have enabled certain practical limitations of microscopes (due to imperfections in the optical system) to be largely overcome. They have also circumvented two fundamental limitations of the human eye: the eye cannot see well in extremely dim light, and it cannot perceive small differences in light intensity against a bright background. The first limitation can be overcome by attaching highly sensitive video cameras (the kind used in night surveillance) to a microscope. It is then possible to observe cells for long periods at very low light levels, thereby avoiding the damaging effects of prolonged bright light (and heat). Such low-light cameras are especially important for viewing fluorescent molecules in living cells, as explained below.

Because images produced by video cameras are in electronic form, they can be readily digitized, fed to a computer, and processed in various ways to extract latent information. Such image processing makes it possible to compensate for various optical faults in microscopes to attain the theoretical limit of resolution. Moreover, by electronic image processing, contrast can be greatly enhanced so that the eye's limitations in detecting small differences in light intensity are overcome. Although this processing also enhances the effects of random background irregularities in the optical system, such defects can be removed by electronically subtracting an image of a blank area of the field. Small transparent objects that were previously impossible to distinguish from the background then become visible.

The high contrast attainable by computer-assisted differential-interference-contrast microscopy makes it possible to see even very small objects such as single microtubules (Figure 9-9), which have a diameter of 0.025 μm, less than one-tenth the wavelength of light. Individual microtubules can also be seen in a fluorescence microscope if they are fluorescently labeled (see Figure 9-15). In both cases, however, the unavoidable diffraction effects badly blur the image so that the microtubules appear at least 0.2 μm wide, making it impossible to distinguish a single microtubule from a bundle of several microtubules.

Figure 9-9. Image processing.

Figure 9-9

Image processing. (A) Unstained microtubules are shown here in an unprocessed digital image, captured using differential-interference-contrast microscopy. (B) The image has now been processed, first by digitally subtracting the unevenly illuminated background, (more...)

Figure 9-15. Immunofluorescence.

Figure 9-15

Immunofluorescence. (A) A transmission electron micrograph of the periphery of a cultured epithelial cell showing the distribution of microtubules and other filaments. (B) The same area stained with fluorescent antibodies against tubulin, the protein (more...)

Tissues Are Usually Fixed and Sectioned for Microscopy

To make a permanent preparation that can be stained and viewed at leisure in the microscope, one first must treat cells with a fixative so as to immobilize, kill, and preserve them. In chemical terms, fixation makes cells permeable to staining reagents and cross-links their macromolecules so that they are stabilized and locked in position. Some of the earliest fixation procedures involved immersion in acids or in organic solvents, such as alcohol. Current procedures usually include treatment with reactive aldehydes, particularly formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, which form covalent bonds with the free amino groups of proteins and thereby cross-link adjacent protein molecules.

Most tissue samples are too thick for their individual cells to be examined directly at high resolution. After fixation, therefore, the tissues are usually cut into very thin slices, or sections, with a microtome, a machine with a sharp blade that operates like a meat slicer (Figure 9-10). The sections (typically 1–10 μm thick) are then laid flat on the surface of a glass microscope slide.

Figure 9-10. Making tissue sections.

Figure 9-10

Making tissue sections. This illustration shows how an embedded tissue is sectioned with a microtome in preparation for examination in the light microscope.

Because tissues are generally soft and fragile, even after fixation, they need to be embedded in a supporting medium before sectioning. The usual embedding media are waxes or resins. In liquid form these media both permeate and surround the fixed tissue; they can then be hardened (by cooling or by polymerization) to form a solid block, which is readily sectioned by the microtome.

There is a serious danger that any treatment used for fixation and embedding may alter the structure of the cell or its constituent molecules in undesirable ways. Rapid freezing provides an alternative method of preparation that to some extent avoids this problem by eliminating the need for fixation and embedding. The frozen tissue can be cut directly with a special microtome that is maintained in a cold chamber. Although frozen sections produced in this way avoid some artifacts, they suffer from others: the native structures of individual molecules such as proteins are well preserved, but the fine structure of the cell is often disrupted by ice crystals.

Once sections have been cut, by whatever method, the next step is usually to stain them.

Different Components of the Cell Can Be Selectively Stained

There is little in the contents of most cells (which are 70% water by weight) to impede the passage of light rays. Thus, most cells in their natural state, even if fixed and sectioned, are almost invisible in an ordinary light microscope. One way to make them visible is to stain them with dyes.

In the early nineteenth century, the demand for dyes to stain textiles led to a fertile period for organic chemistry. Some of the dyes were found to stain biological tissues and, unexpectedly, often showed a preference for particular parts of the cell—the nucleus or mitochondria, for example—making these internal structures clearly visible. Today a rich variety of organic dyes is available, with such colorful names as Malachite green, Sudan black, and Coomassie blue, each of which has some specific affinity for particular subcellular components. The dye hematoxylin, for example, has an affinity for negatively charged molecules and therefore reveals the distribution of DNA, RNA, and acidic proteins in a cell (Figure 9-11). The chemical basis for the specificity of many dyes, however, is not known.

Figure 9-11. A stained tissue section.

Figure 9-11

A stained tissue section. . This section of cells in the urine-collecting ducts of the kidney was stained with a combination of dyes, hematoxylin and eosin, commonly used in histology. Each duct is made of closely packed cells (with nuclei stained red) (more...)

The relative lack of specificity of these dyes at the molecular level has stimulated the design of more rational and selective staining procedures and, in particular, of methods that reveal specific proteins or other macromolecules in cells. It is a problem, however, to achieve adequate sensitivity for this purpose. Since relatively few copies of most macromolecules are present in any given cell, one or two molecules of stain bound to each macromolecule are often invisible. One way to solve this problem is to increase the number of stain molecules associated with a single macromolecule. Thus, some enzymes can be located in cells through their catalytic activity: when supplied with appropriate substrate molecules, each enzyme molecule generates many molecules of a localized, visible reaction product. An alternative and much more generally applicable approach to the problem of sensitivity depends on using dyes that are fluorescent, as we explain next.

Specific Molecules Can Be Located in Cells by Fluorescence Microscopy

Fluorescent molecules absorb light at one wavelength and emit it at another, longer wavelength. If such a compound is illuminated at its absorbing wavelength and then viewed through a filter that allows only light of the emitted wavelength to pass, it is seen to glow against a dark background. Because the background is dark, even a minute amount of the glowing fluorescent dye can be detected. The same number of molecules of an ordinary stain viewed conventionally would be practically invisible because they would give only the faintest tinge of color to the light transmitted through this stained part of the specimen.

The fluorescent dyes used for staining cells are detected by a fluorescence microscope. This microscope is similar to an ordinary light microscope except that the illuminating light, from a very powerful source, is passed through two sets of filters—one to filter the light before it reaches the specimen and one to filter the light obtained from the specimen. The first filter is selected so that it passes only the wavelengths that excite the particular fluorescent dye, while the second filter blocks out this light and passes only those wavelengths emitted when the dye fluoresces (Figure 9-12).

Figure 9-12. The optical system of a fluorescence microscope.

Figure 9-12

The optical system of a fluorescence microscope. A filter set consists of two barrier filters (1 and 3) and a dichroic (beam-splitting) mirror (2). In this example, the filter set for detection of the fluorescent molecule fluorescein is shown. High-numerical-aperture (more...)

Fluorescence microscopy is most often used to detect specific proteins or other molecules in cells and tissues. A very powerful and widely used technique is to couple fluorescent dyes to antibody molecules, which then serve as highly specific and versatile staining reagents that bind selectively to the particular macromolecules they recognize in cells or in the extracellular matrix. Two fluorescent dyes that have been commonly used for this purpose are fluorescein, which emits an intense green fluorescence when excited with blue light, and rhodamine, which emits a deep red fluorescence when excited with green-yellow light (Figure 9-13). By coupling one antibody to fluorescein and another to rhodamine, the distributions of different molecules can be compared in the same cell; the two molecules are visualized separately in the microscope by switching back and forth between two sets of filters, each specific for one dye. As shown in Figure 9-14, three fluorescent dyes can be used in the same way to distinguish between three types of molecules in the same cell. Many newer fluorescent dyes, such as Cy3, Cy5, and the Alexa dyes, have been specifically developed for fluorescence microscopy (see Figure 9-13).

Figure 9-13. Fluorescent dyes.

Figure 9-13

Fluorescent dyes. The maximum excitation and emission wavelengths of several commonly used fluorescent dyes are shown in relation to the corresponding colours of the spectrum. The photon emitted by a dye molecule is necessarily of lower energy (longer (more...)

Figure 9-14. Multiple-fluorescent-probe microscopy.

Figure 9-14

Multiple-fluorescent-probe microscopy. In this composite micrograph of a cell in mitosis, three different fluorescent probes have been used to stain three different cellular components. The spindle microtubules are revealed with a green fluorescent antibody, (more...)

Important methods, discussed later in the chapter, enable fluorescence microscopy to be used to monitor changes in the concentration and location of specific molecules inside living cells (see p. 574).

Antibodies Can Be Used to Detect Specific Molecules

Antibodies are proteins produced by the vertebrate immune system as a defense against infection (discussed in Chapter 24). They are unique among proteins because they are made in billions of different forms, each with a different binding site that recognizes a specific target molecule (or antigen). The precise antigen specificity of antibodies makes them powerful tools for the cell biologist. When labeled with fluorescent dyes, they are invaluable for locating specific molecules in cells by fluorescence microscopy (Figure 9-15); labeled with electron-dense particles such as colloidal gold spheres, they are used for similar purposes in the electron microscope (discussed below).

The sensitivity of antibodies as probes for detecting and assaying specific molecules in cells and tissues is frequently enhanced by chemical methods that amplify the signal. For example, although a marker molecule such as a fluorescent dye can be linked directly to an antibody used for specific recognition—the primary antibody—a stronger signal is achieved by using an unlabeled primary antibody and then detecting it with a group of labeled secondary antibodies that bind to it (Figure 9-16).

Figure 9-16. Indirect immuno-cytochemistry.

Figure 9-16

Indirect immuno-cytochemistry. This detection method is very sensitive because the primary antibody is itself recognized by many molecules of the secondary antibody. The secondary antibody is covalently coupled to a marker molecule that makes it readily (more...)

The most sensitive amplification methods use an enzyme as a marker molecule attached to the secondary antibody. The enzyme alkaline phosphatase, for example, in the presence of appropriate chemicals, produces inorganic phosphate and leads to the local formation of a colored precipitate. This reveals the location of the secondary antibody that is coupled to the enzyme and hence the location of the antibody-antigen complex to which the secondary antibody is bound. Since each enzyme molecule acts catalytically to generate many thousands of molecules of product, even tiny amounts of antigen can be detected. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) based on this principle is frequently used in medicine as a sensitive test—for pregnancy or for various types of infections, for example. Although the enzyme amplification makes enzyme-linked methods very sensitive, diffusion of the colored precipitate away from the enzyme means that the spatial resolution of this method for microscopy may be limited, and fluorescent labels are usually used for the most precise optical localization.

Antibodies are made most simply by injecting a sample of the antigen several times into an animal such as a rabbit or a goat and then collecting the antibody-rich serum. This antiserum contains a heterogeneous mixture of antibodies, each produced by a different antibody-secreting cell (a B lymphocyte). The different antibodies recognize various parts of the antigen molecule (called an antigenic determinant, or epitope), as well as impurities in the antigen preparation. The specificity of an antiserum for a particular antigen can sometimes be sharpened by removing the unwanted antibody molecules that bind to other molecules; an antiserum produced against protein X, for example, can be passed through an affinity column of antigens Y and Z to remove any contaminating anti-Y and anti-Z antibodies. Even so, the heterogeneity of such antisera sometimes limits their usefulness. This problem is largely overcome by the use of monoclonal antibodies (see Figure 8-6). However, monoclonal antibodies can also have problems. Since they are single antibody protein species, they show almost perfect specificity for a single site or epitope on the antigen, but the accessibility of the epitope, and thus the usefulness of the antibody, may depend on the specimen preparation. For example, some monoclonal antibodies will react only with unfixed antigens, others only after the use of particular fixatives, and still others only with proteins denatured on SDS polyacrylamide gels, and not with the proteins in their native conformation.

Imaging of Complex Three-dimensional Objects Is Possible with the Optical Microscope

For ordinary light microscopy, as we have seen, a tissue has to be sliced into thin sections to be examined; the thinner the section, the crisper the image. In the process of sectioning, information about the third dimension is lost. How, then, can one get a picture of the three-dimensional architecture of a cell or tissue, and how can one view the microscopic structure of a specimen that, for one reason or another, cannot first be sliced into sections? Although an optical microscope is focused on a particular focal plane within complex three-dimensional specimens, all the other parts of the specimen above and below the plane of focus are also illuminated, and the light originating from these regions contributes to the image as “out-of-focus” blur. This can make it very hard to interpret the image in detail, and can lead to fine image structure being obscured by the out-of-focus light.

Two approaches have been developed to solve this problem: one is computational, the other is optical. These three-dimensional microscopic imaging methods make it possible to focus on a chosen plane in a thick specimen while rejecting the light that comes from out-of-focus regions above and below that plane. Thus one sees a crisp, thin optical section. From a series of such optical sections taken at different depths and stored in a computer, it is easy to reconstruct a three-dimensional image. The methods do for the microscopist what the CT scanner does (by different means) for the radiologist investigating a human body: both machines give detailed sectional views of the interior of an intact structure.

The computational approach is often called image deconvolution. To understand how it works, remember how the wave nature of light means that the microscope lens system gives a small blurred disc as the image of a point light source, with increased blurring if the point source lies above or below the focal plane. This blurred image of a point source is called the point spread function. An image of a complex object can then be thought of as being built up by replacing each point of the specimen by a corresponding blurred disc, resulting in an image that is blurred overall. For deconvolution, we first obtain a series of (blurred) images, focusing the microscope in turn on a series of focal planes—in effect, a blurred three-dimensional image. The stack of images is then processed by computer to remove as much of the blur as possible. Essentially the computer program uses the microscope's point spread function to determine what the effect of the blurring would have been on the image, and then applies an equivalent “deblurring” (deconvolution), turning the blurred three-dimensional image into a series of clean optical sections. The computation required is quite complex, and used to be a serious limitation. However, with faster and cheaper computers, the image deconvolution method is gaining in power and popularity. An example is shown in Figure 9-17.

Figure 9-17. Image deconvolution.

Figure 9-17

Image deconvolution. (A) A light micrograph of the large polytene chromosomes from Drosophila, stained with a fluorescent DNA-binding dye. (B) The same field of view after image deconvolution clearly reveals the banding pattern on the chromosomes. Each (more...)

The Confocal Microscope Produces Optical Sections by Excluding Out-of-Focus Light

The confocal microscope achieves a result similar to that of deconvolution, but does so by manipulation of the light before it is measured; thus it is an analog technique rather than a digital one. The optical details of the confocal microscope are complex, but the basic idea is simple, as illustrated in Figure 9-18.

Figure 9-18. The confocal fluorescence microscope.

Figure 9-18

The confocal fluorescence microscope. This simplified diagram shows that the basic arrangement of optical components is similar to that of the standard fluorescence microscope shown in Figure 9-12, except that a laser is used to illuminate a small pinhole (more...)

The microscope is generally used with fluorescence optics (see Figure 9-12), but instead of illuminating the whole specimen at once, in the usual way, the optical system at any instant focuses a spot of light onto a single point at a specific depth in the specimen. A very bright source of pinpoint illumination is required; this is usually supplied by a laser whose light has been passed through a pinhole. The fluorescence emitted from the illuminated material is collected and brought to an image at a suitable light detector. A pinhole aperture is placed in front of the detector, at a position that is confocal with the illuminating pinhole—that is, precisely where the rays emitted from the illuminated point in the specimen come to a focus. Thus, the light from this point in the specimen converges on this aperture and enters the detector.

By contrast, the light from regions out of the plane of focus of the spotlight is also out of focus at the pinhole aperture and is therefore largely excluded from the detector (Figure 9-19). To build up a two-dimensional image, data from each point in the plane of focus are collected sequentially by scanning across the field in a raster pattern (as on a television screen) and are displayed on a video screen. Although not shown in Figure 9-18, the scanning is usually done by deflecting the beam with an oscillating mirror placed between the dichroic mirror and the objective lens in such a way that the illuminating spotlight and the confocal pinhole at the detector remain strictly in register.

Figure 9-19. Conventional and confocal fluorescence microscopy compared.

Figure 9-19

Conventional and confocal fluorescence microscopy compared. These two micrographs are of the same intact gastrula-stage Drosophila embryo that has been stained with a fluorescent probe for actin filaments. (A) The conventional, unprocessed image is blurred (more...)

The confocal microscope has been used to resolve the structure of numerous complex three-dimensional objects (Figure 9-20), including the networks of cytoskeletal fibers in the cytoplasm and the arrangements of chromosomes and genes in the nucleus.

Figure 9-20. Three-dimensional reconstruction from confocal microscope images.

Figure 9-20

Three-dimensional reconstruction from confocal microscope images. (A) Pollen grains, in this case from a passion flower, have a complex sculptured cell wall that contains fluorescent compounds. Images obtained at different depths through the grain, using (more...)

The relative merits of deconvolution methods and confocal microscopy for three-dimensional optical microscopy are still the subject of debate. Confocal microscopes are generally easier to use than deconvolution systems and the final optical sections can be seen quickly. On the other hand, modern, cooled CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras used for deconvolution systems are extremely efficient at collecting small amounts of light, and they can be used to make detailed three-dimensional images from specimens that are too weakly stained or too easily damaged by bright light for confocal microscopy.

The Electron Microscope Resolves the Fine Structure of the Cell

The relationship between the limit of resolution and the wavelength of the illuminating radiation (see Figure 9-6) holds true for any form of radiation, whether it is a beam of light or a beam of electrons. With electrons, however, the limit of resolution can be made very small. The wavelength of an electron decreases as its velocity increases. In an electron microscope with an accelerating voltage of 100,000 V, the wavelength of an electron is 0.004 nm. In theory the resolution of such a microscope should be about 0.002 nm, which is 10,000 times that of the light microscope. Because the aberrations of an electron lens are considerably harder to correct than those of a glass lens, however, the practical resolving power of most modern electron microscopes is, at best, 0.1 nm (1 Å) (Figure 9-21). This is because only the very center of the electron lenses can be used, and the effective numerical aperture is tiny. Furthermore, problems of specimen preparation, contrast, and radiation damage have generally limited the normal effective resolution for biological objects to 2 nm (20 Å). This is nonetheless about 100 times better than the resolution of the light microscope. Moreover, in recent years, the performance of electron microscopes has been improved by the development of electron illumination sources called field emission guns. These very bright and coherent sources can substantially improve the resolution achieved. The major landmarks in the development of electron microscopy are listed in Table 9-2.

Figure 9-21. The limit of resolution of the electron microscope.

Figure 9-21

The limit of resolution of the electron microscope. This transmission electron micrograph of a thin layer of gold shows the individual files of atoms in the crystal as bright spots. The distance between adjacent files of gold atoms is about 0.2 nm (2 (more...)

Table 9-2. Major Events in the Development of the Electron Microscope and Its Application to Cell Biology.

Table 9-2

Major Events in the Development of the Electron Microscope and Its Application to Cell Biology.

In overall design the transmission electron microscope (TEM) is similar to a light microscope, although it is much larger and upside down (Figure 9-22). The source of illumination is a filament or cathode that emits electrons at the top of a cylindrical column about 2 m high. Since electrons are scattered by collisions with air molecules, air must first be pumped out of the column to create a vacuum. The electrons are then accelerated from the filament by a nearby anode and allowed to pass through a tiny hole to form an electron beam that travels down the column. Magnetic coils placed at intervals along the column focus the electron beam, just as glass lenses focus the light in a light microscope. The specimen is put into the vacuum, through an airlock, into the path of the electron beam. As in light microscopy, the specimen is usually stained—in this case, with electron-dense material, as we see in the next section. Some of the electrons passing through the specimen are scattered by structures stained with the electron-dense material; the remainder are focused to form an image, in a manner analogous to the way an image is formed in a light microscope—either on a photographic plate or on a phosphorescent screen. Because the scattered electrons are lost from the beam, the dense regions of the specimen show up in the image as areas of reduced electron flux, which look dark.

Figure 9-22. The principal features of a light microscope and a transmission electron microscope.

Figure 9-22

The principal features of a light microscope and a transmission electron microscope. These drawings emphasize the similarities of overall design. Whereas the lenses in the light microscope are made of glass, those in the electron microscope are magnetic (more...)

Biological Specimens Require Special Preparation for the Electron Microscope

In the early days of its application to biological materials, the electron microscope revealed many previously unimagined structures in cells. But before these discoveries could be made, electron microscopists had to develop new procedures for embedding, cutting, and staining tissues.

Since the specimen is exposed to a very high vacuum in the electron microscope, there is no possibility of viewing it in the living, wet state. Tissues are usually preserved by fixation—first with glutaraldehyde, which covalently cross-links protein molecules to their neighbors, and then with osmium tetroxide, which binds to and stabilizes lipid bilayers as well as proteins (Figure 9-23). Because electrons have very limited penetrating power, the fixed tissues normally have to be cut into extremely thin sections (50–100 nm thick, about 1/200 the thickness of a single cell) before they are viewed. This is achieved by dehydrating the specimen and permeating it with a monomeric resin that polymerizes to form a solid block of plastic; the block is then cut with a fine glass or diamond knife on a special microtome. These thin sections, free of water and other volatile solvents, are placed on a small circular metal grid for viewing in the microscope (Figure 9-24).

Figure 9-23. Two common chemical fixatives used for electron microscopy.

Figure 9-23

Two common chemical fixatives used for electron microscopy. The two reactive aldehyde groups of glutaraldehyde enable it to cross-link various types of molecules, forming covalent bonds between them. Osmium tetroxide is reduced by many organic compounds (more...)

Figure 9-24. The copper grid that supports the thin sections of a specimen in a TEM.

Figure 9-24

The copper grid that supports the thin sections of a specimen in a TEM.

The steps required to prepare biological material for viewing in the electron microscope have challenged electron microscopists from the beginning. How can we be sure that the image of the fixed, dehydrated, resin-embedded specimen finally seen bears any relation to the delicate aqueous biological system that was originally present in the living cell? The best current approaches to this problem depend on rapid freezing. If an aqueous system is cooled fast enough to a low enough temperature, the water and other components in it do not have time to rearrange themselves or crystallize into ice. Instead, the water is supercooled into a rigid but noncrystalline state—a “glass”—called vitreous ice. This state can be achieved by slamming the specimen onto a polished copper block cooled by liquid helium, by plunging it into or spraying it with a jet of a coolant such as liquid propane, or by cooling it at high pressure.

Some frozen specimens can be examined directly in the electron microscope using a special, cooled specimen holder. In other cases the frozen block can be fractured to reveal interior surfaces, or the surrounding ice can be sublimed away to expose external surfaces. However, we often want to examine thin sections, and to have them stained to yield adequate contrast in the electron microscope image (discussed further below). A compromise is therefore to rapid-freeze the tissue, then replace the water, maintained in the vitreous (glassy) state, by organic solvents, and finally embed the tissue in plastic resin, cut sections, and stain. Although technically still difficult, this approach stabilizes and preserves the tissue in a condition very close to its original living state.

Contrast in the electron microscope depends on the atomic number of the atoms in the specimen: the higher the atomic number, the more electrons are scattered and the greater the contrast. Biological tissues are composed of atoms of very low atomic number (mainly carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen). To make them visible, they are usually impregnated (before or after sectioning) with the salts of heavy metals such as uranium and lead. Different cellular constituents are revealed with various degrees of contrast according to their degree of impregnation, or “staining,” with these salts. Lipids, for example, tend to stain darkly after osmium fixation, revealing the location of cell membranes (Figure 9-25).

Figure 9-25. A root-tip cell stained with osmium and other heavy metal ions.

Figure 9-25

A root-tip cell stained with osmium and other heavy metal ions. The cell wall, nucleus, vacuoles, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and ribosomes are easily visible in this transmission electron micrograph. (Courtesy of Brian Gunning.) (more...)

Specific Macromolecules Can Be Localized by Immunogold Electron Microscopy

We have seen how antibodies can be used in conjunction with fluorescence microscopy to localize specific macromolecules. An analogous method—immunogold electron microscopy—can be used in the electron microscope. The usual procedure is to incubate a thin section with a specific primary antibody, and then with a secondary antibody to which a colloidal gold particle has been attached. The gold particle is electron-dense and can be seen as a black dot in the electron microscope (Figure 9-26).

Figure 9-26. Localizing proteins in the electron microscope.

Figure 9-26

Localizing proteins in the electron microscope. Immunogold electron microscopy is used here to localize four different protein components to particular locations within the spindle pole body of yeast. At the top is a thin section of a yeast mitotic spindle (more...)

Thin sections often fail to convey the three-dimensional arrangement of cellular components in the TEM and can be very misleading: a linear structure such as a microtubule may appear in section as a pointlike object, for example, and a section through protruding parts of a single irregularly shaped solid body may give the appearance of two or more separate objects. The third dimension can be reconstructed from serial sections (Figure 9-27), but this is still a lengthy and tedious process.

Figure 9-27. A three-dimensional reconstruction from serial sections.

Figure 9-27

A three-dimensional reconstruction from serial sections. Single thin sections sometimes give misleading impressions. In this example, most sections through a cell containing a branched mitochondrion seem to contain two or three separate mitochondria. (more...)

Even thin sections, however, have a significant depth compared to the resolution of the electron microscope, so they can also be misleading in an opposite way. The optical design of the electron microscope—the very small aperture used—produces a large depth of field, so the image seen corresponds to a superimposition (a projection) of the structures at different depths. A further complication for immunogold labeling is that the antibodies and colloidal gold particles do not penetrate into the resin used for embedding; therefore, they only detect antigens right at the surface of the section. This means that first, the sensitivity of detection is low, since antigen molecules present in the deeper parts of the section are not detected, and second, one may get a false impression of which structures contain the antigen and which do not. A solution to this problem is to perform the labeling before embedding the specimen in plastic, when the cells and tissues are still fully accessible to labeling reagents. Extremely small gold particles, about 1 nm in diameter, work best for this procedure. Such small gold particles are usually not directly visible in the final sections, so additional silver or gold is nucleated around the 1 nm gold particles in a chemical process very much like photographic development.

Images of Surfaces Can Be Obtained by Scanning Electron Microscopy

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) directly produces an image of the three-dimensional structure of the surface of a specimen. The SEM is usually a smaller, simpler, and cheaper device than a transmission electron microscope. Whereas the TEM uses the electrons that have passed through the specimen to form an image, the SEM uses electrons that are scattered or emitted from the specimen's surface. The specimen to be examined is fixed, dried, and coated with a thin layer of heavy metal. Alternatively, it can be rapidly frozen, and then transferred to a cooled specimen stage for direct examination in the microscope. Often an entire plant or small animal can be put into the microscope with very little preparation (Figure 9-28). The specimen, prepared in any of these ways, is then scanned with a very narrow beam of electrons. The quantity of electrons scattered or emitted as this primary beam bombards each successive point of the metallic surface is measured and used to control the intensity of a second beam, which moves in synchrony with the primary beam and forms an image on a television screen. In this way, a highly enlarged image of the surface as a whole is built up (Figure 9-29).

Figure 9-28. A developing wheat flower, or spike.

Figure 9-28

A developing wheat flower, or spike. This delicate flower spike was rapidly frozen, coated with a thin metal film, and examined in the frozen state in a SEM. This micrograph, which is at a low magnification, demonstrates the large depth of focus of the (more...)

Figure 9-29. The scanning electron microscope.

Figure 9-29

The scanning electron microscope. In a SEM, the specimen is scanned by a beam of electrons brought to a focus on the specimen by the electromagnetic coils that act as lenses. The quantity of electrons scattered or emitted as the beam bombards each successive (more...)

The SEM technique provides great depth of field; moreover, since the amount of electron scattering depends on the angle of the surface relative to the beam, the image has highlights and shadows that give it a three-dimensional appearance (Figures 9-28 and 9-30). Only surface features can be examined, however, and in most forms of SEM, the resolution attainable is not very high (about 10 nm, with an effective magnification of up to 20,000 times). As a result, the technique is usually used to study whole cells and tissues rather than subcellular organelles. Very high-resolution SEMs have, however, been recently developed with a bright coherent-field emission gun as the electron source. This type of SEM can produce images that rival TEM images in resolution (Figure 9-31).

Figure 9-30. Scanning electron microscopy.

Figure 9-30

Scanning electron microscopy. (A) A scanning electron micrograph of the stereocilia projecting from a hair cell in the inner ear of a bullfrog. For comparison, the same structure is shown by (B) differential-interference-contrast light microscopy and (more...)

Figure 9-31. The nuclear pore.

Figure 9-31

The nuclear pore. Rapidly frozen nuclear envelopes were imaged in a high-resolution SEM, equipped with a field emission gun as the source of electrons. These views of each side of a nuclear pore represent the limit of resolution of the SEM, and should (more...)

Metal Shadowing Allows Surface Features to Be Examined at High Resolution by Transmission Electron Microscopy

The TEM can also be used to study the surface of a specimen—and generally at a higher resolution than in the SEM—in such a way that individual macromolecules can be seen. As in scanning electron microscopy, a thin film of a heavy metal such as platinum is evaporated onto the dried specimen. The metal is sprayed from an oblique angle so as to deposit a coating that is thicker in some places than others—a process known as shadowing because a shadow effect is created that gives the image a three-dimensional appearance.

Some specimens coated in this way are thin enough or small enough for the electron beam to penetrate them directly. This is the case for individual molecules, viruses, and cell walls—all of which can be dried down, before shadowing, onto a flat supporting film made of a material that is relatively transparent to electrons, such as carbon or plastic. For thicker specimens, the organic material of the cell must be dissolved away after shadowing so that only the thin metal replica of the surface of the specimen is left. The replica is reinforced with a film of carbon so it can be placed on a grid and examined in the transmission electron microscope in the ordinary way (Figure 9-32).

Figure 9-32. The preparation of a metal-shadowed replica of the surface of a specimen.

Figure 9-32

The preparation of a metal-shadowed replica of the surface of a specimen. Note that the thickness of the metal reflects the surface contours of the original specimen.

Freeze-Fracture and Freeze-Etch Electron Microscopy Provide Views of Surfaces Inside the Cell

Freeze-fracture electron microscopy provides a way of visualizing the interior of cell membranes. Cells are frozen (as described above) and then the frozen block is cracked with a knife blade. The fracture plane often passes through the hydrophobic middle of lipid bilayers, thereby exposing the interior of cell membranes. The resulting fracture faces are shadowed with platinum, the organic material is dissolved away, and the replicas are floated off and viewed in the electron microscope (see Figure 9-32). Such replicas are studded with small bumps, called intramembrane particles, which represent large transmembrane proteins. The technique provides a convenient and dramatic way to visualize the distribution of such proteins in the plane of a membrane (Figure 9-33).

Figure 9-33. The thylakoid membranes from the chloroplast of a plant cell.

Figure 9-33

The thylakoid membranes from the chloroplast of a plant cell. In this freeze-fracture electron micrograph, the thylakoid membranes, which perform photosynthesis, are stacked up in multiple layers (see Figure 14-34). The plane of the fracture has moved (more...)

Another related replica method is freeze-etch electron microscopy, which can be used to examine either the exterior or interior of cells. In this technique, the frozen block is cracked with a knife blade as described above. But now the ice level is lowered around the cells (and to a lesser extent within the cells) by the sublimation of ice in a vacuum as the temperature is raised—a process called freeze-drying. The parts of the cell exposed by this etching process are then shadowed as before to make a platinum replica. This technique exposes structures in the interior of the cell and can reveal their three-dimensional organization with exceptional clarity (Figure 9-34).

Figure 9-34. A regular array of protein filaments in an insect muscle.

Figure 9-34

A regular array of protein filaments in an insect muscle. To obtain this image, the muscle cells were rapidly frozen to liquid helium temperature, fractured through the cytoplasm, and subjected to deep etching. A metal-shadowed replica was then prepared (more...)

Negative Staining and Cryoelectron Microscopy Allow Macromolecules to Be Viewed at High Resolution

Although isolated macromolecules, such as DNA or large proteins, can be visualized readily in the electron microscope if they are shadowed with a heavy metal to provide contrast, finer detail can be seen by using negative staining. In this technique, the molecules, supported on a thin film of carbon, are washed with a concentrated solution of a heavy-metal salt such as uranyl acetate. After the sample has dried, a very thin film of metal salt covers the carbon film everywhere except where it has been excluded by the presence of an adsorbed macromolecule. Because the macromolecule allows electrons to pass much more readily than does the surrounding heavy-metal stain, a reversed or negative image of the molecule is created. Negative staining is especially useful for viewing large macromolecular aggregates such as viruses or ribosomes, and for seeing the subunit structure of protein filaments (Figure 9-35).

Figure 9-35. Negatively stained actin filaments.

Figure 9-35

Negatively stained actin filaments. In this transmission electron micrograph, each filament is about 8 nm in diameter and is seen, on close inspection, to be composed of a helical chain of globular actin molecules. (Courtesy of Roger Craig.)

Shadowing and negative staining can provide high-contrast surface views of small macromolecular assemblies, but both techniques are limited in resolution by the size of the smallest metal particles in the shadow or stain used. Recent methods provide an alternative that has allowed even the interior features of three-dimensional structures such as viruses to be visualized directly at high resolution. In this technique, called cryoelectron microscopy, rapid freezing to form vitreous ice is again the key. A very thin (about 100 nm) film of an aqueous suspension of virus or purified macromolecular complex is prepared on a microscope grid. The specimen is then rapidly frozen by plunging it into a coolant. A special sample holder is used to keep this hydrated specimen at -160°C in the vacuum of the microscope, where it can be viewed directly without fixation, staining, or drying. Unlike negative staining, in which what is seen is the envelope of stain exclusion around the particle, hydrated cryoelectron microscopy produces an image from the macromolecular structure itself. However, to extract the maximum amount of structural information, special image-processing techniques must be used, as we describe next.

Multiple Images Can Be Combined to Increase Resolution

Any image, whether produced by an electron microscope or by an optical microscope, is made by particles—electrons or photons—striking a detector of some sort. But these particles are governed by quantum mechanics, so the numbers reaching the detector are predictable only in a statistical sense. In the limit of very large numbers of particles, the distribution at the detector is accurately determined by the imaged specimen. However, with smaller numbers of particles, this underlying structure in the image is obscured by the statistical fluctuations in the numbers of particles detected in each region. Random variability that confuses the underlying image of the specimen itself is referred to as noise. Noise is a particularly severe problem for electron microscopy of unstained macromolecules, but it is also important in light microscopy at low light levels. A protein molecule can tolerate a dose of only a few tens of electrons per square nanometer without damage, and this dose is orders of magnitude below what is needed to define an image at atomic resolution.

The solution is to obtain images of many identical molecules—perhaps tens of thousands of individual images—and combine them to produce an averaged image, revealing structural details that were hidden by the noise in the original images. Before the individual images can be combined, however, they must be aligned with each other. Sometimes it is possible to induce proteins and complexes to form crystalline arrays, in which each molecule is held in the same orientation in a regular lattice. In this case, the alignment problem is easily solved, and several protein structures have been determined at atomic resolution by this type of electron crystallography. In principle, however, crystalline arrays are not absolutely required. With the help of a computer, the images of randomly distributed molecules can be processed and combined to yield high-resolution reconstructions, as we now explain.

Views from Different Directions Can Be Combined to Give Three-dimensional Reconstructions

The detectors used to record images from electron microscopes produce two-dimensional pictures. Because of the large depth of field of the microscope, all the parts of the three-dimensional specimen are in focus, and the resulting image is a projection of the structure along the viewing direction. The lost information in the third dimension can be recovered if we have views of the same specimen from many different directions. The computational methods for this technique were worked out in the 1960s, and they are widely used in medical computed tomography (CT) scans. In a CT scan, the imaging equipment is moved around the patient to generate the different views. In electron-microscope (EM) tomography, the specimen holder is tilted in the microscope, which achieves the same result. In this way, one can arrive at a three-dimensional reconstruction, in a chosen standard orientation, by combining a set of views of many identical molecules in the microscope's field of view. Each view will be individually very noisy, but by combining them in three dimensions and taking an average, the noise can be largely eliminated, yielding a clear view of the molecular structure.

EM tomography is now widely applied for determining both molecular structures, using either crystalline or noncrystalline specimens, and larger objects such as thin sections of cells and organelles. It is a particularly successful technique for structures that have some intrinsic symmetry, such as helical or icosahedral viruses, because it makes the task of alignment easier and more accurate. Figure 9-36 shows the structure of an icosahedral virus that has been determined at high resolution by the combination of many particles and multiple views, and Figure 9-37 shows the structure of a ribosome determined in the same way.

Figure 9-36. EM tomography.

Figure 9-36

EM tomography. Spherical protein shells of the hepatitis B virus are preserved in a thin film of ice (A) and imaged in the transmission electron microscope. Thousands of individual particles were combined by EM tomography to produce the three-dimensional (more...)

Figure 9-37. The three-dimensional structure of the 70S ribosome from E. coli determined by EM tomography.

Figure 9-37

The three-dimensional structure of the 70S ribosome from E. coli determined by EM tomography. The small subunit is colored yellow, the large subunit blue. The overall resolution is 11.2 Å. (From I.S. Gabashvili et al., Cell 100: 537–549, (more...)

With crystalline arrays, a resolution of 0.3 nm has been achieved by electron microscopy—enough to begin to see the internal atomic arrangements in a protein and to rival x-ray crystallography in resolution. With single-particle reconstruction, the limit at the moment is about 0.8 nm, enough to identify protein subunits and domains, and limited protein secondary structure. Although electron microscopy is unlikely to supersede x-ray crystallography (discussed in Chapter 8) as a method for macromolecular structure determination, it has some very clear advantages. First, it does not absolutely require crystalline specimens. Second, it can deal with extremely large complexes—structures that may be too large or too variable to crystallize satisfactorily. Electron microscopy provides a bridge between the scale of the single molecule and that of the whole cell.


Many light-microscope techniques are available for observing cells. Cells that have been fixed and stained can be studied in a conventional light microscope, while antibodies coupled to fluorescent dyes can be used to locate specific molecules in cells in a fluorescence microscope. Living cells can be seen with phase-contrast, differential-interference-contrast, dark-field, or bright-field microscopes. All forms of light microscopy are facilitated by electronic image-processing techniques, which enhance sensitivity and refine the image. Confocal microscopy and image deconvolution both provide thin optical sections and can be used to reconstruct three-dimensional images.

Determining the detailed structure of the membranes and organelles in cells requires the higher resolution attainable in a transmission electron microscope. Specific macromolecules can be localized with colloidal gold linked to antibodies. Three-dimensional views of the surfaces of cells and tissues are obtained by scanning electron microscopy. The shapes of isolated macromolecules that have been shadowed with a heavy metal or outlined by negative staining can also be readily determined by electron microscopy. Using computational methods, multiple images and views from different directions are combined to produce detailed reconstructions of macromolecules and molecular complexes through a technique known as electron-microscope tomography.

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By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and Peter Walter; Copyright © 1983, 1989, 1994, Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James D. Watson .
Bookshelf ID: NBK26880


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