AskDefine | Define histology

Dictionary Definition

histology n : the branch of biology that studies the microscopic structure of animal or plant tissues

User Contributed Dictionary





  1. The study of the microscopic structure, chemical composition and function of the tissue or tissue systems of plants and animals

Extensive Definition

Histology (from the Greek ) is the study of the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues of plants and animals. It is performed by examining a thin slice of tissue under a light microscope. Histology is an essential tool of biology and medicine.
Histopathology, the microscopic study of diseased tissue, is an important tool in anatomical pathology, since accurate diagnosis of cancer and other diseases usually requires histopathological examination of samples.
The trained scientists who perform the preparation of histological sections are histotechnicians, histology technicians (HT), histology technologists (HTL), medical scientists, medical laboratory technicians, or biomedical scientists. Their field of study is called histotechnology.

Technical procedure


Fixatives and Preservatives are used to preserve the tissue, the structures of the cell, and the cell organelles found in the individual cells (e.g., nucleus, rough endoplasmic reticulum,and mitochondria). The tissues are mechanically and biochemically stabilized in a fixative. The most common fixative is neutral buffered formalin (10% formaldehyde in Phosphate buffered saline (PBS)). It is important to consider that a fixative should not be too toxic to its handler, and it should not damage the tissue being preserved.


The most common technique is wax processing. The samples are immersed in multiple baths of progressively more concentrated ethanol to dehydrate the tissue, followed by a clearing agent, such as xylene or Histoclear, and finally hot molten paraffin wax (impregnation). During this 12- to 16-hour process, paraffin wax replaces the xylene.


Soft, moist tissues are turned into a hard paraffin block, which is then placed in a mold containing more molten wax (embedded) and allowed to cool and harden.
Embedding can also be accomplished using frozen, non-fixed tissue in a freezing medium. This freezing medium is liquid at room temperature but when cooled will solidify. Non-fixed tissue allows for procedures such as in situ hybridizations for specific mRNAs that would have been destroyed during the fixing process. It also allows for very short turnaround where that is needed, as with a patient currently undergoing surgery.


The tissue is then sectioned into very thin (2–8 micrometer) sections using a microtome. These slices, usually thinner than the average cell, are then placed on a glass slide for staining.
Frozen tissue embedded in a freezing medium is cut on a microtome in a cooled machine called a cryostat.


Routine staining: This is done to give contrast to the tissue being examined, as without staining it is very difficult to see differences in cell morphology. Hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) are the most commonly used stains in histology and histopathology. Hematoxylin colors nuclei blue; eosin colors the cytoplasm pink. To see the tissue under a microscope, the sections are stained with one or more pigments.
Special staining: There are hundreds of various other techniques that have been used to selectively stain cells and cellular components. Other compounds used to color tissue sections include safranin, oil red o, Congo red, fast green FCF, silver salts, and numerous natural and artificial dyes that were usually originated from the development dyes for the textile industry.
Histochemistry refers to the science of using chemical reactions between laboratory chemicals and components within tissue. A commonly performed histochemical technique is the Perls Prussian blue reaction, used to demonstrate iron deposits in diseases like hemochromatosis.
Histology samples have often been examined by radioactive techniques. In historadiography a slide (sometimes stained histochemically) is X-rayed. More commonly, autoradiography is used to visualize the locations to which a radioactive substance has been transported within the body, such as cells in S phase (undergoing DNA replication) which incorporate tritiated thymidine, or sites to which radiolabeled nucleic acid probes bind in in situ hybridization. For autoradiography on a microscopic level, the slide is typically dipped into liquid nuclear tract emulsion, which dries to form the exposure film. Individual silver grains in the film are visualized with dark field microscopy.
Recently, antibodies are used to specifically visualize proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids: this is called immunohistochemistry, or when the stain is a fluorescent molecule, immunofluorescence. This technique has greatly increased the ability to identify categories of cells under a microscope. Other advanced techniques, such as nonradioactive in situ hybridization, can be combined with immunochemistry to identify specific DNA or RNA molecules with fluorescent probes or tags that can be used for immunofluorescence and enzyme-linked fluorescence amplification (especially alkaline phosphatase and tyramide signal amplification). Fluorescence microscopy and confocal microscopy are used to detect fluorescent signals with good intracellular detail. Digital cameras are increasingly used to capture histological and histopathological image

Common laboratory stains

Table sourced from Histology: A Text and Atlas
The Nissl method and Golgi's method are useful in identifying neurons.

Alternative techniques

Alternative techniques include cryosection. The tissue is frozen and cut using a cryostat. Tissue staining methods are similar to those of wax sections. Plastic embedding is commonly used in the preparation of material for electron microscopy. Tissues are embedded in epoxy resin. Very thin sections (less than 0.1 micrometer) are cut using diamond or glass knives. The sections are stained with electron dense stains (uranium and lead) so that they can be seen with the electron microscope.


In the 19th century, histology was an academic discipline in its own right. The 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to histologists Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal. They had dueling interpretations of the neural structure of the brain based in differing interpretations of the same images.

Histological classification of animal tissues

There are four basic types of tissues: muscle tissue, nervous tissue, connective tissue, and epithelial tissue. All tissue types are subtypes of these four basic tissue types (for example, blood cells are classified as connective tissue, since they generally originate inside bone marrow).
  • Epithelium: the lining of glands, bowel, skin and some organs like the liver, lung, kidney
  • Endothelium: the lining of blood and lymphatic vessels
  • Mesothelium: the lining of pleural and pericardial spaces
  • Mesenchyme: the cells filling the spaces between the organs, including fat, muscle, bone, cartilage, and tendon cells
  • Blood cells: the red and white blood cells, including those found in lymph nodes and spleen
  • Neurons: any of the conducting cells of the nervous system
  • Germ cells: reproductive cells (spermatozoa in men, oocytes in women)
  • Placenta: an organ characteristic of true mammals during pregnancy, joining mother and offspring, providing endocrine secretion and selective exchange of soluble, but not particulate, blood-borne substances through an apposition of uterine and trophoblastic vascularised parts
  • Stem cells: cells able to turn into one or several of the above types
Note that tissues from plants, fungi, and microorganisms can also be examined histologically. Their structure is very different from animal tissues.

Related sciences

  • Cell biology is the study of living cells, their DNA and RNA and the proteins they express.
  • Anatomy is the study of organs visible by the naked eye.
  • Morphology studies entire organisms.


Artifacts are structures or features in tissue that interfere with normal histological examination. These are not always present in normal tissue and can come from outside sources. Artifacts interfere with histology by changing the tissues appearance and hiding structures. These can be divided into two categories:


These are features and structures that have being introduced prior to the collection of the tissues. A common example of these include: ink from tattoos and freckles (melanin) in skin samples.


Artifacts can result from tissue processing. Processing commonly lead to changes like shrinkage, color changes in different tissues types and alterations of the structures in the tissue. Because these are caused in a laboratory the majority of post histology artifacts can be avoided or removed after being discovered. A common example is mercury pigment left behind after using Bouin's fixative to fix a section.


1. Merck Source (2002). Dorland's Medical Dictionary. Retrieved 2005-01-26.
2. Stedman's Medical Dictionaries (2005). Stedman's Online Medical Dictionary. Retrieved 2005-01-26.
3. 4,000 online histology images (2007). (
histology in Afrikaans: Histologie
histology in Arabic: علم الأنسجة
histology in Aragonese: Istolochía
histology in Asturian: Histoloxía
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histology in Catalan: Histologia
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histology in Modern Greek (1453-): Ιστολογία
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histology in Occitan (post 1500): Istologia
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histology in Russian: Гистология
histology in Simple English: Histology
histology in Slovak: Histológia
histology in Slovenian: Histologija
histology in Serbian: Хистологија
histology in Serbo-Croatian: Histologija
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histology in Swedish: Histologi
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histology in Ukrainian: Гістологія
histology in Chinese: 组织学

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