Scanning EM of non-heavy metal stained biosamples: Large-field of view, high contrast and highly efficient immunolabeling

Exp Cell Res. 2015 Oct 1;337(2):202-7. doi: 10.1016/j.yexcr.2015.07.012. Epub 2015 Aug 10.


Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) is increasing its application in life sciences for electron density measurements of ultrathin sections. These are traditionally analyzed with transmission electron microscopy (TEM); by most labs, SEM analysis still is associated with surface imaging only. Here we report several advantages of SEM for thin sections over TEM, both for structural inspection, as well as analyzing immuno-targeted labels such as quantum dots (QDs) and gold, where we find that QD-labeling is ten times more efficient than gold-labeling. Furthermore, we find that omitting post-staining with uranyl and lead leads to QDs readily detectable over the ultrastructure, but under these conditions ultrastructural contrast was even almost invisible in TEM examination. Importantly, imaging in SEM with STEM detection leads to both outstanding QDs and ultrastructural contrast. STEM imaging is superior over back-scattered electron imaging of these non-contrasted samples, whereas secondary electron detection cannot be used at all. We conclude that examination of ultrathin sections by SEM, which may be immunolabeled with QDs, will allow rapid and straightforward analysis of large fields with more efficient labeling than can be achieved with immunogold. The large fields of view routinely achieved with SEM, but not with TEM, allows straightforward raw data sharing using virtual microscopy, also known as nanotomy when this concerns EM data in the life sciences.

Keywords: Contrasting; Immuno-EM; Nanotomy; Quantum dots; Scanning EM; Scanning transmission EM; Transmission EM; Virtual EM.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Gold / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Metals / chemistry*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Nanotechnology*
  • Quantum Dots*
  • Staining and Labeling / methods*


  • Metals
  • Gold