Cabra, V., Samsó, M. Do's and Don'ts of Cryo-electron Microscopy: A Primer on Sample Preparation and High Quality Data Collection for Macromolecular 3D Reconstruction. J. Vis. Exp. (95), e52311, doi:10.3791/52311 (2015).
Cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) entails flash-freezing a thin layer of sample on a support, and then visualizing the sample in its frozen hydrated state by transmission electron microscopy (TEM). This can be achieved with very low quantity of protein and in the buffer of choice, without the use of any stain, which is very useful to determine structure-function correlations of macromolecules. When combined with single-particle image processing, the technique has found widespread usefulness for 3D structural determination of purified macromolecules.
The protocol presented here explains how to perform cryoEM and examines the causes of most commonly encountered problems for rational troubleshooting; following all these steps should lead to acquisition of high quality cryoEM images. The technique requires access to the electron microscope instrument and to a vitrification device. Knowledge of the 3D reconstruction concepts and software is also needed for computerized image processing. Importantly, high quality results depend on finding the right purification conditions leading to a uniform population of structurally intact macromolecules.
The ability of cryoEM to visualize macromolecules combined with the versatility of single particle image processing has proven very successful for structural determination of large proteins and macromolecular machines in their near-native state, identification of their multiple components by 3D difference mapping, and creation of pseudo-atomic structures by docking of x-ray structures. The relentless development of cryoEM instrumentation and image processing techniques for the last 30 years has resulted in the possibility to generate de novo 3D reconstructions at atomic resolution level.