The purpose of this study was to explore the turnaround times, section and image quality of a number of more “difficult” specimens destined for rapid diagnostic electron microscopy (EM) after microwave-assisted processing. The results were assessed and compared with those of conventionally processed samples.
A variety of infectious agents, some with a potential for bioterrorism, and liver biopsies serving as an example for routine histopathology samples were studied. The samples represented virus-producing cell cultures (such as SARS-coronavirus, West Nile virus, Orthopox virus), bacteria suspensions (cultures of Escherichia coli and genetically knockout apathogenic Bacillus anthracis), suspensions of parasites (malaria Plasmodium falciparum, Leishmania major, Microsporidia cuniculi, Caenorhabditis elegans), and whole Drosophila melanogaster flies infected with microsporidia. Fresh liver samples and infected flies were fixed in Karnovsky-fixative by microwaving (20 min), all other samples were fixed in buffered glutaraldehyde or Karnovsky-fixative overnight or longer. Subsequently, all samples were divided to evaluate alternative processing protocols: one part of the sample was OsO 4-postfixed, ethanol-dehydrated, Epon-infiltrated (overnight) in an automated tissue processor (LYNX, Leica), and polymerized at 60 °C for 48 h; in parallel the other part was microwave-assisted processed in the bench microwave device (REM, Milestone), including post-osmication and the resin block polymerization.
The microwave-assisted processing protocol required at minimum 3 h 20 min: the respective epon resin blocks were uniformly polymerized allowing an easy sectioning of semi- and ultrathin sections. Sections collected on non-coated 200 mesh grids were stable in the electron beam and showed an excellent preservation of the ultrastructure and high contrast, thus allowing an easy, unequivocal and rapid assessment of specimens.
Compared with conventional routine methods, microwave technology facilitates a significant reduction in sample processing time from days to hours without any loss in ultrastructural details. Microwave-assisted processing could, therefore, be a substantial benefit for the routine electron microscopic diagnostic workload. Due to its speed and robust performance it could be applied wherever a rapid electron microscopy diagnosis is required, e.g., if bioterrorism or emerging agents are suspected. Combining microwave technology with digital image acquisition, the 1-day diagnosis based on ultrathin section electron microscopy will become possible, with crucial or interesting findings being consulted or shared worldwide with experts using modern telemicroscopy tools via Internet.