Structure of Wet Specimens in Electron Microscopy

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Science  01 Nov 1974:
Vol. 186, Issue 4162, pp. 407-414
DOI: 10.1126/science.186.4162.407


Several recent technological advances have increased the practicality and usefulness of the technique of electron microscopy of wet objects. (i) There have been gains in the effective penetration of high-voltage microscopes, scanning transmission microscopes, and high-voltage scanning microscopes. The extra effective penetration gives more scope for obtaining good images through film windows, gas, and liquid layers. (ii) Improved methods of obtaining contrast are available (especially dark field and inelastic filtering) that often make it possible to obtain sufficient contrast with wet unstained objects. (iii) Improved environmental chamber design makes it possible to insert and examine wet specimens as easily as dry specimens.

The ultimate achievable resolution for wet objects in an environmental chamber will gradually become clear experimentally. Resolution is mainly a function of gas path, liquid and wet specimen thickness, specimen stage stability, acceleration voltage, and image mode (fixed or scanning beam) (13).

Much depends on the development of the technique for controlling the thickness of extraneous water film around wet objects or the technique for depositing wet objects onto dry, hydrophobic support films. Although some loss of resolution due to water or gas scattering will always occur, an effective gain is anticipated in preserving the shape of individual molecules and preventing the partial collapse that usually occurs on drying or negative staining.

The most basic question for biological electron microscopy is probably whether any living functions of cells can be observed so that the capabilities of the phase contrast and interference light microscopes can be extended. Investigators are now rapidly approaching a final answer to this question. The two limiting factors are (i) maintaining cell motility in spread cells immersed in thin layers of media and (ii) reducing beam radiation damage to an acceptable level. The use of sensitive emulsions and image intensifiers can bring the observation dose below that required to stop cell motility. Use of a timed, pulsed deflector system enables sufficiently short exposures to be obtained to eliminate blurring due to Brownian motion.

Environmental chambers have enhanced the possibilities of electron diffraction analysis of minute crystals and ordered biological structures. High-resolution electron diffraction patterns (especially kinematic) of protein crystals can only be obtained in a wet environment. Hence, it may now be possible to obtain undistorted images of protein molecules. Moreover, by subjecting diffraction patterns to image-iterative techniques (56), it will be possible to phase the electron diffraction patterns to give a calculated image with a higher resolution than that which can be produced by electron microscope objective lenses.

Environmental chambers offer exciting prospects for the determination of water structure and water and ice nucleation (atmospheric science). Nucleation data near the molecular level have been badly needed for some time.

The application of environmental chambers in industrial chemistry, for example, in studies of polymerization, catalysis, and corrosion, are awaiting exploration. They offer an unusual approach to measurements of reaction kinetics through images that should be both sensitive and rapid.