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New technique shows cells’ molecules in color

Electron microscopes get ability to add hues to high-res images

7:00am, November 4, 2016
electron microscope image

HUE NEW A new technique adds color to electron microscope images, as seen in this shot of two brain cells.

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Electron microscopy is finally getting its Kodachrome moment.

The high-powered scopes can now produce images that simultaneously highlight different molecules in different colors, scientists report online November 3 in Cell Chemical Biology. That’s helpful for researchers hoping to visualize the complex structures of cells or tissues — such as connections between brain cells, shown here.

Electron microscopes build black-and-white images by shooting beams of electrons at samples. Previously, scientists could add color by overlaying lower-resolution images from light microscopes. The new technique adds pizzazz without sacrificing image quality. It involves sequentially layering different metal ions on top of the sample. Each ion selectively latches onto a different target molecule. The electron beam interacts differently with each ion, yielding signature wave shapes that can be converted into colors. The researchers used the coloring technique to show that two brain cells called astrocytes (the edge of one shown in green, the other in red) could link up to the same message-sending junction between nerve cells.


S. Adams et al. Multicolor electron microscopy for simultaneous visualization of multiple molecular species. Cell Chemical Biology. Published online November 3, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.chembiol.2016.10.006.

Further Reading

A. Witze. Quantum dots get a second chance to shine. Science News. Vol. 188, July 11, 2015, p. 22.

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