Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are nanometric membranous structures secreted from almost every cell and present in biofluids. Because EV composition reflects the state of its parental tissue, EVs possess an enormous diagnostic/prognostic potential to reveal pathophysiological conditions. However, a prerequisite for such usage of EVs is their detailed characterisation, including visualisation which is mainly achieved by atomic force microscopy (AFM) and electron microscopy (EM). Here we summarise the EV preparation protocols for AFM and EM bringing out the main challenges in the imaging of EVs, both in their natural environment as biofluid constituents and in a saline solution after EV isolation. In addition, we discuss approaches for EV imaging and identify the potential benefits and disadvantages when different AFM and EM methods are applied, including numerous factors that influence the morphological characterisation, standardisation, or formation of artefacts. We also demonstrate the effects of some of these factors by using cerebrospinal fluid as an example of human biofluid with a simpler composition. Here presented comparison of approaches to EV imaging should help to estimate the current state in morphology research of EVs from human biofluids and to identify the most efficient pathways towards the standardisation of sample preparation and microscopy modes.
Keywords: atomic force microscopy; electron microscopy; extracellular vesicles; human biofluids; morphology; nanotechnology.