Preserving elemental content in adherent mammalian cells for analysis by synchrotron-based x-ray fluorescence microscopy

Qiaoling Jin, Tatjana Paunesku, Barry Lai, Sophie Charlotte Gleber, Si Chen, Lydia Finney, David Vine, Stefan Vogt, Gayle Woloschak, Chris Jacobsen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Trace metals play important roles in biological function, and x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) provides a way to quantitatively image their distribution within cells. The faithfulness of these measurements is dependent on proper sample preparation. Using mouse embryonic fibroblast NIH/3T3 cells as an example, we compare various approaches to the preparation of adherent mammalian cells for XFM imaging under ambient temperature. Direct side-by-side comparison shows that plunge-freezing-based cryoimmobilization provides more faithful preservation than conventional chemical fixation for most biologically important elements including P, S, Cl, K, Fe, Cu, Zn and possibly Ca in adherent mammalian cells. Although cells rinsed with fresh media had a great deal of extracellular background signal for Cl and Ca, this approach maintained cells at the best possible physiological status before rapid freezing and it does not interfere with XFM analysis of other elements. If chemical fixation has to be chosen, the combination of 3% paraformaldehyde and 1.5 % glutaraldehyde preserves S, Fe, Cu and Zn better than either fixative alone. When chemically fixed cells were subjected to a variety of dehydration processes, air drying was proved to be more suitable than other drying methods such as graded ethanol dehydration and freeze drying. This first detailed comparison for x-ray fluorescence microscopy shows how detailed quantitative conclusions can be affected by the choice of cell preparation method.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-93
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Microscopy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Biological
  • cryomicroscopy
  • specimen preparation
  • x-ray microanalysis
  • x-ray microscopy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Histology


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