Chromatin fibers have been observed and measured in frozen hydrated sections of three types of cell (chicken erythrocytes and sperm of Patiria miniata and Thyone briareus) representing an approximately 20-bp range of nucleosomal repeat lengths. For sperm of the starfish P. miniata, it was possible to obtain images of chromatin fibers from cells that were swimming in seawater up to the moment of cryo-immobilization, thus providing a record of the native morphology of the chromatin of these cells. Glutaraldehyde fixation produced no significant changes in the ultrastructure or diameter of chromatin fibers, and fiber diameters observed in cryosections were similar to those recorded after low temperature embedding in Lowicryl K11M. Chromatin fiber diameters measured from cryosections of the three types of nuclei were similar, a striking contrast to the situation for chromatin isolated from these cell types, where a strong positive correlation between diameter and nucleosomal repeat length has been established. The demonstration of chromatin fibers in unfixed whole cells establishes an unequivocal baseline for the study of native chromatin and chromosome architecture. The significant differences between chromatin fibers in nucleo and after isolation supports a previous observation (P. J. Giannasca, R. A. Horowitz, and C. L. Woodcock. 1993. J. Cell Sci. 105:551-561), and suggests that structural studies on isolated material should be interpreted with caution until the changes that accompany chromatin isolation are understood.

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