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J Struct Biol. 2008 Mar;161(3):298-313. Epub 2007 Sep 29.

Expedited approaches to whole cell electron tomography and organelle mark-up in situ in high-pressure frozen pancreatic islets.

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Institute for Molecular Bioscience, Queensland Bioscience Precinct, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld 4072, Australia.


We have developed a simplified, efficient approach for the 3D reconstruction and analysis of mammalian cells in toto by electron microscope tomography (ET), to provide quantitative information regarding 'global' cellular organization at approximately 15-20 nm resolution. Two insulin-secreting beta cells-deemed 'functionally equivalent' by virtue of their location at the periphery of the same pancreatic islet-were reconstructed in their entirety in 3D after fast-freezing/freeze-substitution/plastic embedment in situ within a glucose-stimulated islet of Langerhans isolated intact from mouse pancreata. These cellular reconstructions have afforded several unique insights into fundamental structure-function relationships among key organelles involved in the biosynthesis and release of the crucial metabolic hormone, insulin, that could not be provided by other methods. The Golgi ribbon, mitochondria and insulin secretory granules in each cell were segmented for comparative analysis. We propose that relative differences between the two cells in terms of the number, dimensions and spatial distribution (and for mitochondria, also the extent of branching) of these organelles per cubic micron of cellular volume reflects differences in the two cells' individual capacity (and/or readiness) to respond to secretagogue stimulation, reflected by an apparent inverse relationship between the number/size of insulin secretory granules versus the number/size of mitochondria and the Golgi ribbon. We discuss the advantages of this approach for quantitative cellular ET of mammalian cells, briefly discuss its application relevant to other complementary techniques, and summarize future strategies for overcoming some of its current limitations.

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