Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Nanoscale changes in chromatin organization represent the initial steps of tumorigenesis: a transmission electron microscopy study

Lusik Cherkezyan1, Yolanda Stypula-Cyrus1, Hariharan Subramanian1, Craig White1, Mart Dela Cruz2, Ramesh K Wali2, Michael J Goldberg3, Laura K Bianchi3, Hemant K Roy2 and Vadim Backman1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biomedical Engineering, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA

2 Department of Medicine, Boston Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts 02118, USA

3 Department of Internal Medicine, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Evanston, Illinois 60201, USA

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BMC Cancer 2014, 14:189  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-189

Published: 14 March 2014



Nuclear alterations are a well-known manifestation of cancer. However, little is known about the early, microscopically-undetectable stages of malignant transformation. Based on the phenomenon of field cancerization, the tissue in the field of a tumor can be used to identify and study the initiating events of carcinogenesis. Morphological changes in nuclear organization have been implicated in the field of colorectal cancer (CRC), and we hypothesize that characterization of chromatin alterations in the early stages of CRC will provide insight into cancer progression, as well as serve as a biomarker for early detection, risk stratification and prevention.


For this study we used transmission electron microscopy (TEM) images of nuclei harboring pre-neoplastic CRC alterations in two models: a carcinogen-treated animal model of early CRC, and microscopically normal-appearing tissue in the field of human CRC. We quantify the chromatin arrangement using approaches with two levels of complexity: 1) binary, where chromatin is separated into areas of dense heterochromatin and loose euchromatin, and 2) grey-scale, where the statistics of continuous mass-density distribution within the nucleus is quantified by its spatial correlation function.


We established an increase in heterochromatin content and clump size, as well as a loss of its characteristic peripheral positioning in microscopically normal pre-neoplastic cell nuclei. Additionally, the analysis of chromatin density showed that its spatial distribution is altered from a fractal to a stretched exponential.


We characterize quantitatively and qualitatively the nanoscale structural alterations preceding cancer development, which may allow for the establishment of promising new biomarkers for cancer risk stratification and diagnosis. The findings of this study confirm that ultrastructural changes of chromatin in field carcinogenesis represent early neoplastic events leading to the development of well-documented, microscopically detectable hallmarks of cancer.

Chromatin; Colon cancer; Field cancerization; Field effect; Transmission electron microcopy