The potential and limitations of neutrons, electrons and X-rays for atomic resolution microscopy of unstained biological molecules

Q Rev Biophys. 1995 May;28(2):171-93. doi: 10.1017/s003358350000305x.


Radiation damage is the main problem which prevents the determination of the structure of a single biological macromolecule at atomic resolution using any kind of microscopy. This is true whether neutrons, electrons or X-rays are used as the illumination. For neutrons, the cross-section for nuclear capture and the associated energy deposition and radiation damage could be reduced by using samples that are fully deuterated and 15N-labelled and by using fast neutrons, but single molecule biological microscopy is still not feasible. For naturally occurring biological material, electrons at present provide the most information for a given amount of radiation damage. Using phase contrast electron microscopy on biological molecules and macromolecular assemblies of approximately 10(5) molecular weight and above, there is in theory enough information present in the image to allow determination of the position and orientation of individual particles: the application of averaging methods can then be used to provide an atomic resolution structure. The images of approximately 10,000 particles are required. Below 10(5) molecular weight, some kind of crystal or other geometrically ordered aggregate is necessary to provide a sufficiently high combined molecular weight to allow for the alignment. In practice, the present quality of the best images still falls short of that attainable in theory and this means that a greater number of particles must be averaged and that the molecular weight limitation is somewhat larger than the predicted limit. For X-rays, the amount of damage per useful elastic scattering event is several hundred times greater than for electrons at all wavelengths and energies and therefore the requirements on specimen size and number of particles are correspondingly larger. Because of the lack of sufficiently bright neutron sources in the foreseeable future, electron microscopy in practice provides the greatest potential for immediate progress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Electrons
  • Holography
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Microscopy / methods*
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Microscopy, Phase-Contrast
  • Neutrons
  • X-Ray Diffraction
  • X-Rays


  • Macromolecular Substances