High-performance serial block-face SEM of nonconductive biological samples enabled by focal gas injection-based charge compensation.
A longstanding limitation of imaging with serial block-face scanning electron microscopy is specimen surface charging. This charging is largely due to the difficulties in making biological specimens and the resins in which they are embedded sufficiently conductive. Local accumulation of charge on the specimen surface can result in poor image quality and distortions. Even minor charging can lead to misalignments between sequential images of the block-face due to image jitter. Typically, variable-pressure SEM is used to reduce specimen charging, but this results in a significant reduction to spatial resolution, signal-to-noise ratio and overall image quality. Here we show the development and application of a simple system that effectively mitigates specimen charging by using focal gas injection of nitrogen over the sample block-face during imaging. A standard gas injection valve is paired with a precisely positioned but retractable application nozzle, which is mechanically coupled to the reciprocating action of the serial block-face ultramicrotome. This system enables the application of nitrogen gas precisely over the block-face during imaging while allowing the specimen chamber to be maintained under high vacuum to maximise achievable SEM image resolution. The action of the ultramicrotome drives the nozzle retraction, automatically moving it away from the specimen area during the cutting cycle of the knife. The device described was added to a Gatan 3View system with minimal modifications, allowing high-resolution block-face imaging of even the most charge prone of epoxy-embedded biological samples.