While it may not be possible yet to image live cells with EM, it is possible to image live animals. For one example, Ishigaki et al. (2012) imaged live ticks (Haemaphysalis flava) with scanning electron microscopy. They could even see the ticks moving their legs inside the microscope for about 1 min after they went in the chamber. The ticks were still alive after they were removed from the vacuum inside the microscope. Half of those exposed to the vacuum and the electron beam died within the next two days, but the rest remained alive for at least two more weeks. Apparently, ticks that were only put inside the vacuum all survived just fine. It was only when they were blasted with the high-energy electron beam that their chances of dying increased.
Live ticks in SEM
Notice that the scale bars in panels B-F should be in $\mu m$, not $mm$
This is not the first study to succeed in imaging live organisms with electron microscopy; that was Pease et al. in 1966. It appears that in some insects the ionizing beam induces the polymerization of "extracellular substances" into a thin (~5 $\mu$m) membrane that acts as a protective "nano-suit" (Takaku et al. 2013). Takaku et al. (2013) could induce the formation of a similarly protective thin membrane by using polysorbate 20, a broadly used surfactant. Artificially inducing the formation of similar "nano-suits" may be a more promising way to image live cells with electron microscopy rather than relying on quantum mechanical measurements. Takaku et al. (2013) even go as far as to speculate that the natural formation of similar "nano-suits" may have acted as a protective shield for prokaryotic extremophiles that could have invaded the earth during early evolution (panspermia hypothesis).
- Ishigaki Y, Nakamura Y, Oikawa Y, Yano Y, Kuwabata S, Nakagawa H, et
al. (2012). Observation of Live Ticks (Haemaphysalis flava) by
Scanning Electron Microscopy under High Vacuum Pressure. PLoS ONE
7(3): e32676. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0032676
- Pease, R.F.W., Hayes, T.L., Camp, A.S. and Amer, N.M., (1966). Electron microscopy of living insects. Science, 154(3753):
- Takaku Y., Suzuki H., Ohta I., IshiiD., Muranaka Y., Shimomura M., and HariyamaT. (2013). A thin polymer membrane, nano-suit, enhancing
survival across the continuum between air and high vacuum
PNAS 110 (19): 7631-7635. 10.1073/pnas.1221341110