Imaging intracellular elemental distribution and ion fluxes in cultured cells using ion microscopy: a freeze-fracture methodology

J Microsc. 1986 Oct;144(Pt 1):15-37. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2818.1986.tb04670.x.


A freeze-fracture methodology was standardized for tissue culture cells to study intracellular distribution of diffusible elements with ion microscopy. Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) and normal rat kidney (NRK) cells grown on a silicon substrate were sandwiched using another smooth surface (silicon, glass, mica) in the presence of spacers and fast frozen in liquid nitrogen slush. The sandwich was fractured by prying the two halves apart under liquid nitrogen. This procedure produced large areas on the silicon substrate containing hundreds of cells grouped together and fractured at the apical cell surface. After freeze-drying, these cells revealed a subcellular distribution of Na, K, Ca, Mg, P, Cl and S with the approximately 0.5 micron lateral resolution of the ion microscope. Between the nuclei and the cytoplasm of cells, no major differences were observed for Na, K, Mg, P, Cl and S intensities. Calcium alone, however, exhibited a remarkable distribution. Calcium accumulated more in the cytoplasm than in the nuclei of cells. Even within the cytoplasm its distribution was heterogeneous, suggesting Ca binding sites. The fractured cells consistently exhibited high K-low Na intensities. The injured or dead cells were easily recognized among the healthy ones due to their abnormal ion composition. This simple freeze-fracture methodology allowed fracturing of cells without removing the cells from the substrate. In addition, it eliminated the need for washing the nutrient media away and cryo-sectioning before ion microanalysis. The methodology was successfully extended to 3T3 mouse fibroblast, PtK2 rat kangaroo and L5 rat myoblast cultures.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Cells / ultrastructure*
  • Cricetinae
  • Cricetulus
  • Female
  • Freeze Drying
  • Freeze Fracturing / methods
  • Kidney
  • Microscopy, Electron / methods
  • Ovary
  • Rats