The imaging technique, called cryo-EM, has the added benefit of maintaining the sample being studied in a state very similar to its natural environment. Other imaging techniques used regularly, such as X-ray crystallography, require the sample be manipulated.
"This method offers a new approach for modeling the structure of proteins in other macromolecular assemblies, such as DNA, at near-native states," Jiang said. "The sample is purified in a solution that is very similar to the environment that would be found in a host cell. It is as if the virus is frozen in glass and it is alive and infectious while we examine it."
In addition to Jiang, Matthew L. Baker, Joanita Jakana and Wah Chiu from Baylor College of Medicine, and Peter R. Weigele and Jonathan King from Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked on the project, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
The team obtained a three-dimensional map of the capsid, or protein shell, of the epsilon15 bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria and is a member of a family of viruses that are the most abundant life forms on Earth, Jiang said.
Other methods of determining the structure could not be used for this family of virus. None had been successfully crystallized, and the complexity of members of this family had prevented evaluation through the genome sequence alone.
"This demonstration shows that cryo-EM is doable and is a major step in reaching the full potential of this technique," he said. "The goal is to have it reach a 3 to 4 angstrom resolution, which would allow us to clearly see the amino acids that make up a protein."
In electron microscopy, a beam of electrons takes the place of the light beam used in a conventional microscope. The use of electrons instead of light allows the microscope to "see" in much greater detail.
Cryo-EM cools specimens to temperatur
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