The application of electron tomography to cell biology has led to important insights into the 3D fine structure of subcellular processes and organelles. Tomography has been particularly useful for studying relatively large, multi-component structures such as the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria and synaptic complexes. When combined with very powerful high voltage electron microscopes, tomography has also provided high resolution quantitative views of extended structures such as neuronal dendrites in very thick sections (4 μm) at electron microscopic resolution. The utility of tomography is twofold: first, it provides 3D examination of subcellular structure without the need for serial section analysis; second, because the computed slices through the tomographic volumes can be much thinner than is possible to produce by physical sectioning, it reveals structural detail in the range of 5-30 nm that tends to be obscured in conventional thin sections. Tomographic analysis has forced re-assessment of long-standing views of organelles such as mitochondria and the Golgi apparatus and as the technique advances, additional insights are likely forthcoming.
Electron tomography is an expensive technique, both in terms of the instruments used and the computational resources required. The three major high voltage electron microscope resources in the United States, San Diego, Boulder and Albany, all are actively engaged in tomographic research and offer this important technology to the scientific community at large.