In contrast to light microscopes, electron microscopes use a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. Not only does this allow for higher magnification and thus more detail (Figure 3), it also provides higher resolving power. Preparation of a specimen for viewing under an electron microscope will kill it; therefore, live cells cannot be viewed using this type of microscopy. In addition, the electron beam moves best in a vacuum, making it impossible to view living materials.
In a scanning electron microscope, a beam of electrons moves back and forth across a cell’s surface, rendering the details of cell surface characteristics by reflection. Cells and other structures are usually coated with a metal like gold. In a transmission electron microscope, the electron beam is transmitted through the cell and provides details of a cell’s internal structures. As you might imagine, electron microscopes are significantly more bulky and expensive than are light microscopes.