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Open Access Open Badges Methodology article

Cationic hydrous thorium dioxide colloids – a useful tool for staining negatively charged surface matrices of bacteria for use in energy-filtered transmission electron microscopy

Heinrich Lünsdorf*, Ingeborg Kristen and Elke Barth

  • * Corresponding author: Heinrich Lünsdorf

Author Affiliations

GBF-National Institute of Biotechnology, Department of Environmental Microbiology, Mascheroder Weg 1, D-38124 Braunschweig, Germany

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BMC Microbiology 2006, 6:59  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-6-59

Published: 27 June 2006



Synthesis of cationic hydrous thorium dioxide colloids (ca. 1.0 to 1.7 nm) has been originally described by Müller [22] and Groot [11] and these have been used by Groot to stain acidic glucosaminoglycans for ultrastructure research of different tissues by conventional transmission electron microscopy.


Synthesis of colloidal thorium dioxide has been modified and its use as a suitable stain of acidic mucopolysaccharides and other anionic biopolymers from bacteria, either as whole mount preparations or as preembedment labels, is described. The differences in stain behavior relative to commonly used rutheniumred-lysine and Alcian Blue™ electron dense acidic stains has been investigated and its use is exemplified for Pseudomonas aeruginosa adjacent cell wall biopolymers. For the first time thorificated biopolymers, i.e. bacterial outer cell wall layers, have been analysed at the ultrastructural level with electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) and electron spectroscopic imaging (ESI), leading to excellent contrast and signal strength for these extracellular biopolymers.


Application of cationic hydrous ThO2 colloids for tracing acidic groups of the bacterial surface and/or EPS has been shown to be rather effective by transmission electron microscopy. Because of its high electron density and its good diffusibility it stains and outlines electro-negative charges within these biopolymers. In combination with ESI, based on integrated energy-filtered electron microscopy (EFTEM) Th-densities and thus negative charge densities can be discriminated from other elemental densities, especially in environmental samples, such as biofilms.