Cryogenic electron microscopy
Cryogenic Electron Microscopy (cryoEM) is an electron microscopy (EM) technique applied on samples cooled to cryogenic temperatures and embedded in an environment of vitreous water. An aqueous sample solution is applied to a grid-mesh and plunge-frozen in liquid ethane or a mixture of liquid ethane and propane. While development of the technique began in the 1970s, recent advances in detector technology and software algorithms have allowed for the determination of biomolecular structures at near-atomic resolution. This has attracted wide attention to the approach as an alternative to X-ray crystallography or NMR spectroscopy for macromolecular structure determination without the need for crystallization.
In 2017, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution." Nature Methods also named cryoEM as the "Method of the Year" in 2016.
Transmission electron cryomicroscopy
- Cryogenic Electron Tomography (CryoET), a specialized application of where samples are imaged as they are tilted
- Electron Crystallography, method to determine the arrangement of atoms in solids using a TEM
- MicroED, method to determine the structure of proteins, peptides, organic molecules, and inorganic compounds using electron diffraction from 3D crystals
- Single Particle Analysis cryoEM, an averaging method to determine protein structure from monodisperse samples
History of cryogenic electron microscopy
In the 1960s, the use of Transmission Electron Microscopy for structure determination methods was limited because of the radiation damage due to high energy electron beams. Scientists hypothesized that examining specimens at low temperatures would reduce beam-induced radiation damage. Both liquid helium (−269 °C or 4 K or −452.2 °F) and liquid nitrogen (−195.79 °C or 77 K or −320 °F) were considered as cryogens. In 1980, Erwin Knapek and Jacques Dubochet published commenting on beam damage at cryogenic temperatures sharing observations that:
Thin crystals mounted on carbon film were found to be from 30 to 300 times more beam-resistant at 4 K than at room temperature... Most of our results can be explained by assuming that cryoprotection in the region of 4 K is strongly dependent on the temperature.
However, these results were not reproducible and amendments were published in Nature just two years later informing that the beam resistance was less significant than initially anticipated. The protection gained at 4 K was closer to “tenfold for standard samples of L-valine,” than what was previously stated.
In 1981, Alasdair McDowall and Jacques Dubochet, scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, reported the first successful implementation of cryoEM. McDowall and Dubochet vitrified pure water in a thin film by spraying it onto a hydrophilic carbon film that was rapidly plunged into cryogen (liquid propane or liquid ethane cooled to 100 K). The thin layer of amorphous ice was less than 1 µm thick and an electron diffraction pattern confirmed the presence of amorphous/vitreous ice. In 1984, Dubochet's group demonstrated the power of cryoEM in structural biology with analysis of vitrified adenovirus type 2, T4 bacteriophage, Semliki Forest virus, Bacteriophage CbK, and Vesicular-Stomatitis-Virus.
2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Scanning electron cryomicroscopy
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