Electron Microscopy-Based Comparison and Investigation of the Morphology of Exosomes Derived from Hepatocellular Carcinoma Cells Isolated at Different Centrifugal Speeds

Microsc Microanal. 2020 Apr;26(2):310-318. doi: 10.1017/S1431927620000070.


Exosomes derived from hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells are nanovesicles and are involved in the occurrence and development of HCC, they also serve as important carriers and drug targets of nanodrug delivery systems. The external shape and internal structure of exosomes are important indexes of identification, and isolated intact morphology is crucial to biological function integrity. However, given their susceptibility to various influencing factors, the external shape and internal structure of exosomes derived from HCC cells remain incompletely studied. In this study, exosomes purified from HCC cells were isolated at different centrifugation speeds and examined via multiple electron microscopy (EM) techniques. The results demonstrate that exosomes possess a nearly spherical shape and bilipid membranous vesicle with a concave cavity structure containing electron-dense and coated vesicles, suggesting the possible existence of subpopulations of exosomes with specific functions. The exosomes isolated at ultracentrifugation (UC) speed (≥110,000×g) presented irregular and diverse external morphologies, indicating the effect on the integrity of the exosomes. Transforming growth factor signaling bioactive substances (TGF-β1, S100A8, and S100A9) can be found in exosomes by performing Western blotting, showing that the internal content is associated with metastasis of HCC. These findings show that EMelectron microscopy and UC speed can affect exosome characteristics, including external shape, internal structure, and content of bioactive substances. The electron-dense and coated vesicles that had been discovered in exosomes might become new additional morphological features, which could help to improve the interpretation of experimental results and widen our understanding of exosome morphology.

Keywords: centrifugal speed; electron microscopy; exosome; hepatocellular carcinoma; morphology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / metabolism*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / pathology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Exosomes / chemistry*
  • Exosomes / metabolism
  • Exosomes / pathology*
  • Hep G2 Cells
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / pathology
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Signal Transduction
  • Ultracentrifugation / methods*