The cellular nanocosm is made up of numerous types of macromolecular complexes or biological nanomachines. These form functional modules that are organized into complex subcellular networks. Information on the ultra-structure of these nanomachines has mainly been obtained by analyzing isolated structures, using imaging techniques such as X-ray crystallography, NMR, or single particle electron microscopy (EM). Yet there is a strong need to image biological complexes in a native state and within a cellular environment, in order to gain a better understanding of their functions. Emerging methods in EM are now making this goal reachable. Cryo-electron tomography bypasses the need for conventional fixatives, dehydration and stains, so that a close-to-native environment is retained. As this technique is approaching macromolecular resolution, it is possible to create maps of individual macromolecular complexes. X-ray and NMR data can be 'docked' or fitted into the lower resolution particle density maps to create a macromolecular atlas of the cell under normal and pathological conditions. The majority of cells, however, are too thick to be imaged in an intact state and therefore methods such as 'high pressure freezing' with 'freeze-substitution followed by room temperature plastic sectioning' or 'cryo-sectioning of unperturbed vitreous fully hydrated samples' have been introduced for electron tomography. Here, we review methodological considerations for visualizing nanomachines in a close-to-physiological, cellular context. EM is in a renaissance, and further innovations and training in this field should be fully supported.
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