Systems, compositions, methods and kits employ protein shells, such as ferritin or viral capsid shells, herein called nanobubbles, to enhance X-ray images of cells or body tissue under certain x-ray imaging methods. The nanobubbles have sub-micron size such as about 10 nm, about 40, 60, or 100 nm and may be functionalized for effective delivery to or uptake by a target tissue, in vivo or a cell culture. The nanobubbles are hollow, having a central core which may be empty or contain a fluid, such that the shells effectively form long-lived bubbles in the imaged environment, and are of low electron density and have different scattering properties than the surrounding tissue. X-ray imaging by spatial frequency heterodyne imaging enhances visualization or detection of tissue regions bearing the shells. The protein shells may be further treated to assure biocompatibility and/or to resist undesired interactions with non-targeted tissue, such as scavenging by the liver, or attack by the immune system. For example the nanobubbles may be filled with a hydrophobic gas such as perfluoropropane (octafluoropropane) to maintain their shape and resist hydrophilic interactions and delay the degradation of the protein shells. The nanobubbles may also be coated or treated by a surface-functionalization processes to effectively target specific tissues or tumor types, allow parenteral delivery, and/or deliver drugs or other agents to the imaged sites--so that when visualized by X-ray scatter imaging the presence of the nanobubbles indicates the existence and extent of the tumor or diseased tissue.
 This invention was made with government support under DE-FG02-08ER15937 awarded by the Department of Energy and contract number R01 EB012027 awarded by the National Institutes of Health. The Government has certain rights in the invention.