Single-particle cryo-EM at atomic resolution

27 May 2020

The three-dimensional positions of atoms in protein molecules define their structure and provide mechanistic insights into the roles they perform in complex biological processes. The more precisely atomic coordinates are determined, the more chemical information can be derived and the more knowledge about protein function may be inferred. With breakthroughs in electron detection and image processing technology, electron cryo- microscopy (cryo-EM) single-particle analysis has yielded protein structures with increasing levels of detail in recent years. However, obtaining cryo-EM reconstructions with sufficient resolution to visualise individual atoms in proteins has thus far been elusive. A. Radu Aricescu & Sjors H.W. Scheres et al. show in the bioRxiv paper that using a new electron source, energy filter and camera, a 1.7 Å resolution cryo-EM reconstruction for a prototypical human membrane protein, the β3 GABAA receptor homo-pentamer, can be obtained. Such maps allow a detailed understanding of small molecule coordination, visualisation of solvent molecules and alternative conformations for multiple amino acids, as well as unambiguous building of ordered acidic side chains and glycans. Applied to mouse apo-ferritin, their strategy led to a 1.2 Å resolution reconstruction that, for the first time, offers a genuine atomic resolution view of a protein molecule using single particle cryo-EM. Moreover, the scattering potential from many hydrogen atoms can be visualised in difference maps, allowing a direct analysis of hydrogen bonding networks. Combination of the technological advances described here with further approaches to accelerate data acquisition and improve sample quality provide a route towards routine application of cryo-EM in high-throughput screening of small molecule modulators and structure-based drug discovery.

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