Cryofixation followed by freeze substitution in osmium tetroxide was evaluated as a method for preparing biological specimens for immunoelectronmicroscopy. Samples were rapidly frozen by impact onto a sapphire block cooled with liquid nitrogen, substituted at -80 degrees C in acetone containing osmium tetroxide, and embedded in epoxy resin. With this protocol, excellent ultrastructure can be combined with localization of antigens that otherwise would be inactivated by the osmium, but labeling may need to be enhanced by chemically etching the sections prior to staining. The effects of etching on various structures in the sections were investigated by examining the sections with atomic force microscopy, an approach that yields three-dimensional views of the surface of the section. A considerable part of the section was removed or collapsed by the etching, and these effects occurred differentially in several components of the tissue and with different etching protocols. Nevertheless, the results suggest that the partial removal of the plastic by etching of freeze-substituted tissue can be explored as a method for exposing fine biological structures for observation with atomic force microscopy.