Cryo-EM facility secures new transmission electron microscope
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) situated in the heart of Richmond, Virginia, is now home to one of the first Thermo Scientific Tundra Cryo-Transmission Electron Microscopes (Cryo-TEM) in the United States thanks to Dr. Montserrat Samso and her impassioned effort to expand access to cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) at her cryo-EM facility.
“People think that obtaining the structure is the end result,” said Dr. Samso when speaking about the profound impact of cryo-EM on structural biology. “No,” she shared, “that’s just the beginning.”
The Tundra Cryo-TEM, which was designed with ease-of-use features and guided automation to make it easier to get started in cryo-EM, will be housed in a 1,300 square foot cryo-EM facility complete with a dedicated manager to care for the instrument and train new users.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Samso about her career, the evolution of cryo-EM at her university, and how she brought this powerful new tool to her institution.
A career in various structural biology techniques
Dr. Samso earned her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and completed postdoctoral training at the Biological Microscopy and Image Reconstruction Unit of the New York State Department of Health. As a structural biologist, she works on ion channels, especially cryo-EM of ryanodine receptors (RyRs), proteins responsible for the release of calcium and associated with severe musculoskeletal and cardiac disorders.
Dr. Samso began her career in her hometown of Barcelona working with her mentor, Dr. Joan-Ramon Daban, on chromatin and protein-detergent complexes using small-angle scattering. When small-angle scattering couldn’t accurately solve their structure, cryo-EM showed that the complexes of protein and SDS detergent are like beads on a string, which explains how they get separated by molecular weight on polyacrylamide gels. With her newfound interest in cryo-EM, she joined the lab of Dr. Joachim Frank (Nobel Prize recipient in 2017) in Albany, New York, researching dynein and then moved to Harvard Medical School while working on RyRs, which she was able to resolve to 10 angstroms, which at the time was near the limit achievable for membrane proteins.
Dr. Samso joined Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010, focusing on RyR allosterism and disease mutations, and now runs a cryo-EM facility that specializes in imaging proteins using cryo-EM.
Since joining Virginia Commonwealth University, she has collaborated on projects examining the bacterial motor that powers type IV pili, as well as cellular changes arising from premature ventricular contractions and RyR mutations.
“Electron microscopy, and especially cryo-EM, has been essential. It has powered my research and offered a new perspective to help my collaborators,” said Dr. Samso.
The evolution of cryo-EM at Virginia Commonwealth University
“When I arrived at VCU, I was lucky that my position came with a new cryo-electron microscope” said Dr. Samso. The challenge was keeping up with the advances and evolution of electron microscopy while at the university. For example, Virginia Commonwealth University didn’t have access to a direct electron detector for a few years after they were introduced.
Through a grant consortium, Virginia Commonwealth University was able to share access to some of the latest electron microscopes, including a Thermo Scientific Krios Cryo-TEM, with the University of Virginia, located about 70 miles away in Charlottesville.
“Fantastic work has come from the consortiums, so that has been very positive for the field of cryo-EM,” Dr. Samso said.
Funding to expand instrumentation at the university’s cryo-EM facility
An uptick in demand for access to cryo-EM at her university led Dr. Samso to seek funding for a new microscope.
When the Thermo Scientific Tundra Cryo-TEM was released, she saw a great opportunity. The instrument’s combined ease of use, sample optimization capabilities, and resolution made it ideal for the mix of microscopists at the university. They could now gain valuable insights on structure without having to leave their local facility, and in those cases where they needed the higher resolution of the Krios Cryo-TEM, they could utilize this tool more productively.
To bring a new cryo-TEM into her facility, Dr. Samso submitted applications to several sources—including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the State of Virginia— the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund of Virginia was the most expeditious to award the funding she needed to purchase and install a Tundra Cryo-TEM on campus.
Equally important was the support she found along the way from both her university and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
“Thermo Fisher was very helpful,” Dr. Samso said. “They even gave a seminar to highlight the importance of cryo-EM and what it could bring to the institution. They were ready to answer any question. I think having all these things together is what made it possible.”
The new instrument will allow the university to expand their work with internal and external collaborators. “My goal is to create a culture of cryo-EM at VCU,” Dr. Samso said.
Once the installation of the Tundra is complete, Virginia Commonwealth University’s cryo-EM facility will offer a course in both cryo-EM and image processing. With the microscope’s simplified workflow and recent advances in sample preparation and data processing, new users can be trained on the instrument in a fraction of the time needed for other cryo-EM solutions, making it an ideal training tool to help emerging scientists enhance their career opportunities.
With their experience in cryo-EM techniques, Dr. Samso noted, “I would tell them, not only will they get a job, but they will get the job that they want.”
Leave a Reply