Cossio, P. & Hummer, G. Bayesian analysis of individual electron microscopy images: towards structures of dynamic and heterogeneous biomolecular assemblies. J Struct Biol, 2013, 184, 427-437
We develop a method to extract structural information from electron microscopy (EM) images of dynamic and heterogeneous molecular assemblies. To overcome the challenge of disorder in the imaged structures, we analyze each image individually, avoiding information loss through clustering or averaging. The Bayesian inference of EM (BioEM) method uses a likelihood-based probabilistic measure to quantify the consistency between each EM image and given structural models. The likelihood function accounts for uncertainties in the molecular position and orientation, variations in the relative intensities and noise in the experimental images. The BioEM formalism is physically intuitive and mathematically simple. We show that for experimental GroEL images, BioEM correctly identifies structures according to the functional state. The top-ranked structure is the corresponding X-ray crystal structure, followed by an EM structure generated previously from a superset of the EM images used here. To analyze EM images of highly flexible molecules, we propose an ensemble refinement procedure, and validate it with synthetic EM maps of the ESCRT-I-II supercomplex. Both the size of the ensemble and its structural members are identified correctly. BioEM offers an alternative to 3D-reconstruction methods, extracting accurate population distributions for highly flexible structures and their assemblies. We discuss limitations of the method, and possible applications beyond ensemble refinement, including the cross-validation and unbiased post-assessment of model structures, and the structural characterization of systems where traditional approaches fail. Overall, our results suggest that the BioEM framework can be used to analyze EM images of both ordered and disordered molecular systems.