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. Read more
Christmas decoration? Modern art? Anything to do with science at all? Of course it is. As well as being pretty to look at, this little grid full of holes could have a big impact on microscopy. Dr Chris Russo, a researcher at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) and the person who took the photo, explains more.
It might look like something you should hang on your wall, but this picture is actually a close-up of a tiny gold device that could allow researchers to unravel the details of how the complex biological machines inside cells work.
Working with Dr Lori Passmore, I have used this ‘grid’, which costs just a few pounds to make, to almost double the image quality of a multi-million pound electron microscope.
We then used it to determine the structure of a protein called ferritin, a small protein cage which stores the iron that cells need to function, and a particularly tough structure to determine. Read more
Dr Lori Passmore is head of the Mechanisms of Macromolecular Machines group in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). She showed Isabel Baker around her shiny new office where she approaches biological questions using structural biology methods.
These coasters were made by a friend of mine who does glass fusing. She’s put some actual electron microscopy (EM) grids, which we use to image proteins, inside the glass. Each grid is 3mm in diameter, made of a disc of metal such as copper or gold, often with a layer of carbon on top. To use these grids in the lab, we pipette a few microlitres of protein in solution on top and remove the excess solution, leaving a thin layer containing the protein. For cryo-EM – where we freeze the samples at liquid nitrogen temperature to preserve them in the vacuum of the microscope – the carbon has holes in it. When you freeze the grid, the protein molecules are trapped in ice suspended across the holes. We then image the protein, in the suspension of ice across the grid. Read more