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Histology slide preparation involves five crucial steps: (1) Tissues are fixed using a formalin solution. (2) Fixed specimens are trimmed and transferred to labeled cassettes. (3) They are then dehydrated, cleared, and embedded in paraffin wax. (4) Sectioning with a microtome produces thin tissue slices which are transferred to glass slides. (5) These tissue sections are stained to make their components visible for microscopic examination.

If you’re involved in biological research, chances are, at some stage, you’ve submitted tissue specimens to a histology lab. Somehow they magically produced beautiful slides for you—each containing thin sections of your specimens, ready for microscopic evaluation.

Have you ever been curious about the process a histology technician follows for histology slide preparation? Although the exact process depends on different tissue types, there are five basic steps. Read on for the five important stages in histology slide preparation.

The Five Steps of Histology Slide Preparation

1. Tissue fixation

Slide preparation begins with the fixation of your tissue specimen. This is a crucial step in tissue preparation, and the purpose of the fixation process is to prevent tissue autolysis and putrefaction. For best results, your biological tissue samples should be transferred into fixative immediately after collection.

Although there are many types of fixative, most specimens are fixed in a 10% neutral buffered formalin solution. The optimum formalin-to-specimen volume ratio should be at least 10:1 (e.g., 10ml of formalin per 1 cm3 of tissue). This will allow most tissues to become adequately fixed within 24-48 hours. Formalin containers should be capped, leak-proof, and appropriately labeled.

2. Specimen Transfer to Cassettes

After fixation, specimens are trimmed using a scalpel to enable them to fit into an appropriately labeled tissue cassette. Specimens should not be so big that they fill the cassette – they are trimmed so as not to touch the edges.

Additionally, they must not be too thick (ideally, they should be less than 4 mm); otherwise, they risk being “waffled” when the cassette lid is closed. The filled tissue cassettes are then stored in formalin until processing begins.

3. Tissue Processing

Processing tissues into thin microscopic sections is usually done using a paraffin block, as follows:

  1. Dehydration, which involves immersing your specimen in increasing concentrations of alcohol to remove the water and formalin from the tissue.
  2. Clearing, in which an organic solvent such as xylene is used to remove the alcohol and allow infiltration with paraffin wax.
  3. Embedding, where specimens are infiltrated with the embedding agent – usually paraffin wax. The tissue becomes surrounded by a large block of molten paraffin wax, creating what is now referred to as the “block”. Once the block solidifies, it provides a support matrix that allows very thin sectioning.

4. Sectioning

Your tissue specimen is now ready to be cut into sections that can be placed on a slide.

  1. Wax is removed from the surface of the block to expose the tissue.
  2. Blocks are chilled on a refrigerated plate or ice tray for 10 minutes before sectioning.
  3. A microtome is used to slice extremely thin tissue sections off the block in the form of a ribbon.

The microtome can be pre-set to cut at different thicknesses, but most tissues are cut at around 5 µm. You can discover more ways to slice tissue sections here.

Once cut, the tissue ribbons are carefully transferred to a warm water bath. Here they are allowed to float on the surface, and can then be scooped up onto a slide placed under the water level.

Charged glass slides work best for this process—they improve tissue adhesion to the glass, and help reduce the chance of sections washing off the slide during staining.

Slides should be clearly labeled and then allowed to dry upright at 37°C for a few hours to gently melt the excess paraffin wax, leaving the tissue section intact.

5. Staining

Most cells are transparent and appear almost colorless when unstained. Histochemical stains, such as hematoxylin and eosin, which is the routine stain, are therefore used to provide contrast to tissue sections, making tissue structures more visible and easier to evaluate.

Following the staining process, a cover slip is mounted over the tissue specimen on the slide, using optical grade glue, to help protect the specimen for microscopic examination.

Histology Slide Preparation Wrapped Up

So as you can see, histology slide preparation is no breeze—it’s quite an intricate work of art! Although you may want to learn how to do this to help cut costs in the lab, I’d advise you to think twice about this, and instead send the specimens to a histology laboratory for this purpose – especially if tissue evaluation is an important part of your study.

You’ll save yourself a lot of stress and time accidentally damaging your delicate tissue sections by leaving this job to an experienced histology technician. Plus, your slides will be much easier to evaluate.

While histology is great for lower-resolution imaging of whole tissues, it is limiting if you want to investigate subcellular structural changes in (say) brain tissue and tumors. In this case, a more detailed and high-powered technique, such as brain cancer electron microscopy, is required.

If histology has enough resolution for your needs, do you prefer to make your own slides, or send tissues to a histology lab for processing? Leave a comment below.

Want to know more about histology? Visit the Bitesize Bio Histology Hub for tips and tricks for all your histology experiments.

Further Reading and Additional Resources

If you found this article useful, you might want to check out some of our related articles below:

Are you wondering what histological stain will stain the tissue you’re interested in? Download our free, colorful guide to histological stains and pin it up.

A free poster of stains for histology slide preparation

Originally published April 4, 2012. Reviewed and updated in November 2020 and December 2023.

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