Rames, M.; Yu, Y. & Ren, G. Optimized negative staining: a high-throughput protocol for examining small and asymmetric protein structure by electron microscopy. Journal of visualized experiments : JoVE, 2014, e51087
Structural determination of proteins is rather challenging for proteins with molecular masses between 40 - 200 kDa. Considering that more than half of natural proteins have a molecular mass between 40 - 200 kDa, a robust and high-throughput method with a nanometer resolution capability is needed. Negative staining (NS) electron microscopy (EM) is an easy, rapid, and qualitative approach which has frequently been used in research laboratories to examine protein structure and protein-protein interactions. Unfortunately, conventional NS protocols often generate structural artifacts on proteins, especially with lipoproteins that usually form presenting rouleaux artifacts. By using images of lipoproteins from cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) as a standard, the key parameters in NS specimen preparation conditions were recently screened and reported as the optimized NS protocol (OpNS), a modified conventional NS protocol. Artifacts like rouleaux can be greatly limited by OpNS, additionally providing high contrast along with reasonably high-resolution (near 1 nm) images of small and asymmetric proteins. These high-resolution and high contrast images are even favorable for an individual protein (a single object, no average) 3D reconstruction, such as a 160 kDa antibody, through the method of electron tomography. Moreover, OpNS can be a high-throughput tool to examine hundreds of samples of small proteins. For example, the previously published mechanism of 53 kDa cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) involved the screening and imaging of hundreds of samples. Considering cryo-EM rarely successfully images proteins less than 200 kDa has yet to publish any study involving screening over one hundred sample conditions, it is fair to call OpNS a high-throughput method for studying small proteins. Hopefully the OpNS protocol presented here can be a useful tool to push the boundaries of EM and accelerate EM studies into small protein structure, dynamics and mechanisms.