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Histology is the study of the tissues of the body and how these tissues are arranged to constitute organs. This subject involves all aspects of tissue biology, with the focus on how cells’ structure and arrangement optimize functions specific to each organ.

Tissues have two interacting components: cells and extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM consists of many kinds of macromolecules, most of which form complex structures, such as collagen fibrils. The ECM supports the cells and contains the fluid transporting nutrients to the cells, and carrying away their wastes and secretory products. Cells produce the ECM locally and are in turn strongly influenced by matrix molecules. Many matrix components bind to specific cell surface receptors that span the cell membranes and connect to structural components inside the cells, forming a continuum in which cells and the ECM function together in a well-coordinated manner.

During development, cells and their associated matrix become functionally specialized and give rise to fundamental types of tissues with characteristic structural features. Organs are formed by an orderly combination of these tissues, and their precise arrangement allows the functioning of each organ and of the organism as a whole.

The small size of cells and matrix components makes histology dependent on the use of microscopes and molecular methods of study. Advances in biochemistry, molecular biology, physiology, immunology, and pathology are essential for a better knowledge of tissue biology. Familiarity with the tools and methods of any branch of science is essential for a proper understanding of the subject. This chapter reviews common methods used to study cells and tissues, focusing on microscopic approaches.


The most common procedure used in histologic research is the preparation of tissue slices or “sections” that can be examined visually with transmitted light. Because most tissues and organs are too thick for light to pass through, thin translucent sections are cut from them and placed on glass slides for microscopic examination of the internal structures.

The ideal microscopic preparation is preserved so that the tissue on the slide has the same structural features it had in the body. However, this is often not feasible because the preparation process can remove cellular lipid, with slight distortions of cell structure. The basic steps used in tissue preparation for light microscopy are shown in Figure 1–1.


Sectioning fixed and embedded tissue.

Most tissues studied histologically are prepared as shown, with this sequence of steps (a):

  • Fixation: Small pieces of tissue are placed in solutions of chemicals that cross-link proteins and inactivate degradative enzymes, which preserve cell and tissue structure.

  • Dehydration: The tissue is transferred through a series of increasingly concentrated alcohol solutions, ending in 100%, which removes all water.

  • Clearing: Alcohol is removed in organic solvents in which both alcohol and paraffin are miscible.

  • Infiltration: The ...

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