Freeze-substitution protocols for improved visualization of membranes in high-pressure frozen samples

J Microsc. 2003 Oct;212(Pt 1):53-61. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2818.2003.01228.x.


Specimen preparation methods based on high-pressure freezing and freeze-substitution have enabled significant advances in the quality of morphological preservation of biological samples for electron microscopy. However, visualization of a subset of cellular membranes, particularly the endoplasmic reticulum and cis Golgi, is often impaired by a lack of contrast. By contrast, some efforts to increase membrane staining may lead to excessively granular staining. No one freeze-substitution method has emerged that both overcomes these limitations and is suitable for all types of analysis. However, one or more of the following protocols, perhaps with minor modifications, should yield satisfactory results in most cases. Freeze-substitution in glutaraldehyde and uranyl acetate in acetone, followed by embedding in Lowicryl HM20, generates samples suitable for both immunolocalization and high-resolution structural studies. Membranes are typically lightly stained but very well defined. Initial freeze-substitution in tannic acid and glutaraldehyde in acetone prior to exposure to osmium tetroxide significantly enhanced contrast on mammalian cellular membranes. Finally, initial trials indicate that freeze-substitution in potassium permanganate in acetone can provide strong contrast on endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi as well as other membranes. The tendency of permanganate to degrade cytoskeletal elements and other proteins when employed in aqueous solutions at room temperature is apparently curtailed when it is used as a freeze-substitution reagent.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure*
  • Cryopreservation / methods*
  • Freeze Substitution / methods*
  • HeLa Cells / ultrastructure
  • HeLa Cells / virology
  • Humans
  • Poliovirus / ultrastructure
  • Pressure
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / ultrastructure
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured