Breaking the next Cryo-EM resolution barrier – Atomic resolution determination of proteins!

25 May 2020

Single particle cryo-EM is a powerful method to solve the three-dimensional structures of biological macromolecules. The technological development of electron microscopes, detectors, automated procedures in combination with user friendly image processing software and ever-increasing computational power have made cryo-EM a successful and largely expanding technology over the last decade. At resolutions better than 4 Å, atomic model building starts becoming possible but the direct visualization of true atomic positions in protein structure determination requires significantly higher (< 1.5 Å) resolution, which so far could not be attained by cryo-EM. The direct visualization of atom positions is essential for understanding protein-catalyzed chemical reaction mechanisms and to study drug-binding and -interference with protein function. In a new bioRxiv paper, Holger Stark et a. report a 1.25 Å resolution structure of apoferritin obtained by cryo-EM with a newly developed electron microscope providing unprecedented structural details. Their apoferritin structure has almost twice the 3D information content of the current world record reconstruction (at 1.54 Å resolution). For the first time in cryo-EM they can visualize individual atoms in a protein, see density for hydrogen atoms and single atom chemical modifications. Beyond the nominal improvement in resolution they can also show a significant improvement in quality of the cryo-EM density map which is highly relevant for using cryo-EM in structure-based drug design.

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