We have developed a technique called quantitative electron spectroscopic tomography (QuEST) for imaging the three-dimensional distribution of specific chemical elements in cells. A 300 kV field-emission transmission electron microscope (TEM) equipped with an advanced imaging filter is used to collect a series of 2-D elemental maps for a range of specimen tilt angles. Acquisition is controlled by means of flexible computer scripts that enable correction for specimen drift and defocus between successive tilt angles. Projected 2-D elemental distributions are obtained by acquiring images above and below characteristic core-edges in the energy-loss spectrum and by subtracting the extrapolated background intensity at each pixel. We have implemented and tested a dual-axis simultaneous iterative reconstruction technique (SIRT) to reconstruct the 3-D elemental distribution. By applying a thickness correction algorithm that takes into account plural inelastic scattering, and by incorporating scattering cross sections for excitation of core-shell electrons, we have shown that it is possible to quantify the elemental distributions in terms of the number of atoms per voxel. By using correlative light microscopy and 3-D phosphorus imaging, experiments are in progress to map the distribution of DNA in specific domains of cell nuclei, where macromolecular complexes are involved in regulation of genes. We have demonstrated the feasibility of using a dual fluoro-nanogold labeled antibody to image specific proteins contained within the chromatin insulator body complex. The proteins can be tracked in the optical microscope using the fluorescence tag, after which the gold nanoparticle tags can be visualized in 3D using electron tomography in the scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) mode. Then EFTEM tomography is used to determine the distribution of DNA in the vicinity of the insulator body complex. The application of the QuEST technique is limited by radiation damage, which has the potential to alter the elemental composition as well as the specimen morphology, and we have performed a systematic study to determine the effect of electron dose. Electron tomograms obtained from unstained high-pressure frozen and freeze-substituted sections of Caenorhabditis elegans showed that it is feasible to obtain useful 3D phosphorus and nitrogen maps, and thus to reveal quantitative information about the subcellular distributions of nucleic acids and proteins.

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National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering
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Aronova, Maria A; Leapman, Richard D (2013) Elemental mapping by electron energy loss spectroscopy in biology. Methods Mol Biol 950:209-26
Aronova, M A; Kim, Y C; Pivovarova, N B et al. (2009) Quantitative EFTEM mapping of near physiological calcium concentrations in biological specimens. Ultramicroscopy 109:201-12