Cellular processes rely on the precise orchestration of signaling and effector molecules in space and time, yet it remains challenging to gain a comprehensive picture of the molecular organization underlying most basic biological functions. This organization often takes place at length scales below the resolving power of conventional microscopy. In recent years, several ‘superresolution’ fluorescence microscopic techniques have emerged that can surpass the diffraction limit of conventional microscopy by a factor of 2–20. These methods have been used to reveal previously unknown organization of macromolecular complexes and cytoskeletal structures. The resulting high-resolution view of molecular organization and dynamics is already changing our understanding of cellular processes at the systems level. However, current subdiffractive microscopic techniques are not without limitations; challenges remain to be overcome before these techniques achieve their full potential. Here, we introduce three primary types of subdiffractive microscopic techniques, consider their current limitations and challenges, and discuss recent biological applications. WIREs Syst Biol Med 2014, 6:151–168. doi: 10.1002/wsbm.1259
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Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.