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In this article, we review some of the recent developments in instrumentation and methods that have led to the rise of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) in the life sciences community, and consider how researchers in the materials community might benefit from these advances. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is compared with scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) for cryogenic imaging in both biological and materials science applications. We discuss the developments in detector technologies that have in part powered the development of cryo-EM and anticipate exciting areas for productive overlap between life science and materials science cryo-EM applications.
Cryogenic transmission electron microscopy is simply transmission electron microscopy conducted on specimens that are cooled in the microscope. The target temperature of the specimen might range from just below ambient temperature to less than 4 K. In general, as the temperature decreases, cost increases, especially below –77°C when liquid He is required. We have two reasons for wanting to cool the specimen—improving stability of the material or observing a material whose properties change at lower temperatures. Both types of study have a long history. The cause of excitement in this field today is that we have a perfect storm of research activity—electron microscopes are almost stable with minimal drift (we can correct what drift there is), we can prepare specimens from the bulk or build them up, we have spherical-aberration-corrected lenses and monochromated beams, we have direct-electron-detector cameras, and computers are becoming powerful enough to handle all the data we produce.
The OSU-FEI Electron Microscopy Collaboratory multiplies the number of individuals who can experience hands-on advanced microscopy techniques. The microscopy classroom allows up to 33 attendees to operate, individually and in real time, electron microscopes as if they were sitting in front of the actual instruments. The communications link, a fast backbone augmented by Internet2, allows various microscopes to be operated from the classroom or by collaborators in another city. This system transforms the training of new users from a one-person-at-a-time session with an expert operator to a group collaborative activity that can include users from around the world.