Cryo-electron microscopy: big kit solving life’s smallest puzzles
Since its invention in the 1980s, the UK has led developments in cryo-electron microscopy – a technique allowing scientists to zoom in on the inner-workings of tiny molecules. A new imaging centre at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research is now expanding the UK’s powerful microscope offering. Director Professor David Bhella shares his grand plans.
So what exactly is cryo-electron microscopy?
Cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM for short, is a powerful microscope technique. It’s different from imaging with normal microscopes as it uses beams of electrons, instead of light. Structural biologists use this technique to take pictures of biological samples at near-atomic scale, frozen in their natural state. It’s a faster and more effective way of looking deep inside molecules compared to other structural biology tools.
The technique gives an up-close glimpse of the molecular machines that drive the processes of life, helping us better understand how diseases affect our bodies and how we fight infection. Scientists are studying how viruses infect humans and how we might stop disease-causing molecules with drugs or vaccines.
What’s the aim of the new Scottish Centre for Macromolecular Imaging?
It’s a new national centre for structural biology research. It will provide access to cutting-edge cryo-EM tools for the structural biology communities of Scotland and Northern England. We established the centre through close cooperation between a consortium of Scottish Universities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, St. Andrews, as well as the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research. We’re aiming to create a network of structural biologists who’ll work together to train and share best practice.
Pride of place is a new cryo-electron microscope. Why’s it so special?
We have a high-performance microscope called the CryoARM 300. It’s capable of firing a powerful beam of electrons at samples – up to 300,000 electron volts – to capture detailed images of their structures. It’s the first of this model in the country and there are only a handful in the world. Powerful microscopes are few and far between in the UK, and they’re in high demand. So it’s a major win for UK scientists.
The microscope can hold 12 specimens at liquid nitrogen temperatures (minus 196 degrees Celsius). It’s fully automated, allowing us to run data collection 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is a major feat, as in recent years most electron microscope data collection was manual.
We bought it from a major developer and manufacturer of electron microscopes based in Japan. Through close academic-industry collaboration, our centre has an opportunity to shape their thinking and drive future innovation.
How will your team use this shiny new piece of equipment?
Our work focuses on understanding the structure of important viruses, including respiratory viruses, such as influenza, and herpes viruses. Breakthroughs in image-processing methods now allow us to probe deep inside the structure of viruses to see how they work.
We recently uncovered hidden features on what we previously thought were symmetrical viruses. This helped us reveal how the herpes virus infects people. We hope this finding could lead to the development of new drugs to treat herpes viruses, which cause diseases including cancers and severe illnesses in unborn children.
What do you hope to gain from your UK-wide partnership?
It’s been a tremendously positive experience setting up the consortium. I’ve built ties with structural biologists across the UK. The concept of the centre extends far beyond its physical presence – it will be a ‘hub and spoke’ network with facilities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. These facilities will work closely to share their experiences and there’ll be training available in all partner institutions. I hope we’ll foster new collaborations across the community, maximising the potential of our research efforts.