Get access

Localization microscopy: mapping cellular dynamics with single molecules


  • A.J. NELSON,

    1. Department of Physics and Astronomy and Institute for Molecular Biophysics, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, U.S.A.
    Search for more papers by this author
  • S.T. HESS

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Physics and Astronomy and Institute for Molecular Biophysics, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, U.S.A.
    • Correspondence to: Samuel T. Hess, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Maine, 5709 Bennett Hall, Orono, ME 04469, U.S.A. Tel.: 207-581-1036; fax: 207-581-3410; e-mail:

    Search for more papers by this author


Resolution describes the smallest details within a sample that can be recovered by a microscope lens system. For optical microscopes detecting visible light, diffraction limits the resolution to ∼200–250 nm. In contrast, localization measures the position of an isolated object using its image. Single fluorescent molecules can be localized with an uncertainty of a few tens of nanometres, and in some cases less than one nanometre. Superresolution fluorescence localization microscopy (SRFLM) images and localizes fluorescent molecules in a sample. By controlling the visibility of the fluorescent molecules with light, it is possible to cause a sparse subset of the tags to fluoresce and be spatially separated from each other. A movie is acquired with a camera, capturing images of many sets of visible fluorescent tags over a period of time. The movie is then analysed by a computer whereby all of the single molecules are independently measured, and their positions are recorded. When the coordinates of a sufficient number of molecules are collected, an image can be rendered by plotting the coordinates of the localized molecules. The spatial resolution of these rendered images can be better than 20 nm, roughly an order of magnitude better than the diffraction limited resolution. The invention of SRFLM has led to an explosion of related techniques. Through the use of specialized optics, the fluorescent signal can be split into multiple detection channels. These channels can capture additional information such as colour (emission wavelength), orientation and three-dimensional position of the detected molecules. Measurement of the colour of the detected fluorescence can allow researchers to distinguish multiple types of fluorescent tags and to study the interaction between multiple molecules of interest. Three-dimensional imaging and determination of molecular orientations offer insight into structural organization of the sample. SRFLM is compatible with living samples and has helped to illuminate many dynamic biological processes, such as the trajectories of molecules within living cells. This review discusses the concept and process of SRFLM imaging and investigates recent advances in SRFLM functionality. Since its announcement in 2006, SRFLM has been quickly adopted and modified by many researchers to help investigate questions whose answers lie below the diffraction limit. The versatility of the SRFLM technique has great promise for improving our understanding of cell biology at the molecular level.

Get access to the full text of this article