Application of environmental scanning electron microscopy to determine biological surface structure


S.E. KIRK. Tel: 01223 337007; fax: 01233 337000; e-mail:


The use of environmental scanning electron microscopy in biology is growing as more becomes understood about the advantages and limitations of the technique. These are discussed and we include new evidence about the effect of environmental scanning electron microscopy imaging on the viability of mammalian cells. We show that although specimen preparation for high-vacuum scanning electron microscopy introduces some artefacts, there are also challenges in the use of environmental scanning electron microscopy, particularly at higher resolutions. This suggests the two technologies are best used in combination. We have used human monocyte-derived macrophages as a test sample, imaging their complicated and delicate membrane ruffles and protrusions. We have also explored the possibility of using environmental scanning electron microscopy for dynamic experiments, finding that mammalian cells cannot be imaged and kept alive in the environmental scanning electron microscopy. The dehydration step in which the cell surface is exposed causes irreversible damage, probably via loss of membrane integrity during liquid removal in the specimen chamber. Therefore, mammalian cells should be imaged after fixation where possible to protect against damage as a result of chamber conditions.