In this study we investigated the possibility of imaging internal cellular molecules after cytochemical detection with atomic force microscopy (AFM). To this end, rat 9G and HeLa cells were hybridized with haptenized probes for 28S ribosomal RNA, human elongation factor mRNA and cytomegalovirus immediate early antigen mRNA. The haptenized hybrids were subsequently detected with a peroxidase-labelled antibody and visualized with 3,3'-diaminobenzidine (DAB). The influence of various scanning conditions on cell morphology and visibility of the signal was investigated. In order to determine the influence of ethanol dehydration on cellular structure and visibility of the DAB precipitate, cells were kept in phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) and scanned under fluid after DAB development or dehydrated and subsequently scanned dry or submerged in PBS. Direct information on the increase in height of cellular structures because of internally precipitated DAB and the height of mock-hybridized cells was available. Results show that internal DAB precipitate can be detected by AFM, with the highest sensitivity in the case of dry cells. Although a relatively large amount of DAB had to be precipitated inside the cell before it was visible by AFM, the resolution of AFM for imaging of RNA–in situ hybridization signals was slightly better than that of conventional optical microscopy. Furthermore, it is concluded that dehydration of the cells has irreversible effects on cellular structure. Therefore, scanning under fluid of previously dehydrated samples cannot be considered as a good representation of the situation before dehydration.