Peters, John Jacob / Leitz, Jeremy / Guo, Qiang / Beck, Florian / Baumeister, Wolfgang / Brunger, Axel T. A feature-guided, focused 3D signal permutation method for subtomogram averaging. 2022. J. Structural Biology, Vol. 214, p. 107851
Advances in electron microscope instrumentation, cryo-electron tomography data collection, and subtomogram averaging have allowed for the in-situ visualization of molecules and their complexes in their native environment. Current data processing pipelines commonly extract subtomograms as a cubic subvolume with the key assumption that the selected object of interest is discrete from its surroundings. However, in instances when the object is in its native environment, surrounding densities may negatively affect the subsequent alignment and refinement processes, leading to loss of information due to misalignment. For example, the strong densities from surrounding membranes may dominate the alignment process for membrane proteins. Here, we developed methods for feature-guided subtomogram alignment and 3D signal permutation for subtomogram averaging. Our 3D signal permutation method randomizes and filters voxels outside a mask of any shape and blurs the boundary of the mask that encapsulates the object of interest. The randomization preserves global statistical properties such as mean density and standard deviation of voxel density values, effectively producing a featureless background surrounding the object of interest. This signal permutation process can be repeatedly applied with intervening alignments of the 3D signal-permuted subvolumes, recentering of the mask, and optional adjustments of the shape of the mask. We have implemented these methods in a new processing pipeline which starts from tomograms, contains feature-guided subtomogram extraction and alignment, 3D signal-permutation, and subtomogram visualization tools. As an example, feature-guided alignment and 3D signal permutation leads to improved subtomogram average maps for a dataset of synaptic protein complexes in their native environment.