Electron Microscopes


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Part a: Salmonella through a light microscope appear as tiny purple dots. Part b: In this scanning electron micrograph, bacteria appear as three-dimensional ovals. The human cells are much larger with a complex, folded appearance. Some of the bacteria lie on the surface of the human cells, and some are squeezed between them.
 (a) These Salmonella bacteria appear as tiny purple dots when viewed with a light microscope. (b) This scanning electron microscope micrograph shows Salmonella bacteria (in red) invading human cells (yellow). Even though subfigure (b) shows a different Salmonella specimen than subfigure (a), you can still observe the comparative increase in magnification and detail. (credit a: modification of work by CDC/Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Charles N. Farmer, Rocky Mountain Laboratories; credit b: modification of work by NIAID, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

In contrast to light microscopes, electron microscopes use a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. Not only does this allow for higher magnification and, thus, more detail, it also provides higher resolving power. The method to prepare the specimen for viewing with an electron microscope kills the specimen. Electrons have short wavelengths (shorter than photons) that move best in a vacuum, so we cannot view living cells with an electron microscope.

– What is the architecture of cells and biomaterials that is visible at higher magnifications than found on a standard optical light microscope?

In a scanning electron microscope, a beam of electrons moves back and forth across a cell’s surface, creating details of cell surface characteristics. In a transmission electron microscope, the electron beam penetrates the cell and provides details of a cell’s internal structures. As you might imagine, electron microscopes are significantly more bulky and expensive than light microscopes.

-Molecules that make up air would scatter the electrons, so samples that are viewed with electron microscope are in what?

One major disadvantage of the transmission electron microscope is the need for extremely thin sections of the specimens, typically about 100 nanometers. Creating these thin sections for biological and materials specimens is technically very challenging. Semiconductor thin sections can be made using a focused ion beam. Biological tissue specimens are chemically fixed, dehydrated and embedded in a polymer resin to stabilize them sufficiently to allow ultrathin sectioning. Sections of biological specimens, organic polymers, and similar materials may require staining with heavy atom labels in order to achieve the required image contrast.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e