Chromatin organization over multiple length scales plays a critical role in the regulation of transcription. Deciphering the interplay of these processes requires high-resolution, three-dimensional, quantitative imaging of chromatin structure in vitro. Herein, we introduce ChromSTEM, a method that utilizes high-angle annular dark-field imaging and tomography in scanning transmission electron microscopy combined with DNA-specific staining for electron microscopy. We utilized ChromSTEM for an in-depth quantification of 3D chromatin conformation with high spatial resolution and contrast, allowing for characterization of higher-order chromatin structure almost down to the level of the DNA base pair. Employing mass scaling analysis on ChromSTEM mass density tomograms, we observed that chromatin forms spatially well-defined higher-order domains, around 80 nm in radius. Within domains, chromatin exhibits a polymeric fractal-like behavior and a radially decreasing mass-density from the center to the periphery. Unlike other nanoimaging and analysis techniques, we demonstrate that our unique combination of this high-resolution imaging technique with polymer physics-based analysis enables us to (i) investigate the chromatin conformation within packing domains and (ii) quantify statistical descriptors of chromatin structure that are relevant to transcription. We observe that packing domains have heterogeneous morphological properties even within the same cell line, underlying the potential role of statistical chromatin packing in regulating gene expression within eukaryotic nuclei.
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