As the Protein Data Bank celebrates its 50th anniversary, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) continues to rise in prominence as the go-to technique for solving biological structures at high-resolution. The Protein Data Bank serves as a single worldwide archive for macromolecular structure data made available free of charge to the public. Thanks in part to increasing cryo-EM access, the total number of solved structures added to this repository grew fivefold over the past two decades. In that time, the number of structures added via electron microscopy alone grew by nearly 17,000%.
In 2020, 2,390 structures solved using cryo-EM were added to the archive—a 65% jump over the previous year and 15% of all structures submitted that year.
In recent years, cryo-EM ushered in a new era of structural biology with its ability to view molecules in their near-native state at atomic-level resolution. The method became the second most widely used technique for solving structures added to the Protein Data Bank, surpassing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in 2017. It also gained ground on the No. 1 method to-date—X-ray crystallography—which faces limits in its ability to crystallize macromolecules of large size and poor stability.
Cryo-EM access through innovative instrumentation
As cryo-EM continues its ascent, it is important to callout the cutting-edge equipment that made it possible.
Thanks to their speed, accuracy, and high-resolution results, our Thermo Scientific Glacios Cryo-TEM, Krios Cryo-TEM, and Talos Arctica Cryo-TEM have contributed to the structures solved using cryo-EM and led to important discoveries that increased our understanding of a wide range of diseases from HIV to cancer to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Moreover, related techniques such as cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) revolutionized biomedical research by making it possible to visualize 3D protein structures and disease states within the context of the larger cell.
From access to adoption
While cryo-EM has come a long way, realizing the full potential of this technique will require a far greater level of adoption. Whether it be new diseases and viruses or a changing environment that puts new strains on agricultural crops, far more scientists in many research areas need access to cryo-EM technologies to tackle the evolving set of challenges in front of them.
At Thermo Fisher, we made cryo-EM access and the democratization of this technique a priority. Our groundbreaking Thermo Scientific Tundra Cryo-TEM, which was released at the close of 2020, broadens cryo-EM access by delivering unprecedented ease of use at an affordable price. This more accessible cryo-TEM uses artificial intelligence and guided automation to bring cryo-EM to non-expert users—helping them to easily navigate what was once a complex workflow while achieving resolutions as high as 3.5 angstrom.
As the world confronts a growing number of challenges, greater cryo-EM access remains a top priority. By democratizing cryo-EM, our goal is to speed the path to important scientific discoveries by making cryo-EM affordable and seamless for every biochemistry laboratory to use.
To learn more about the breakthrough impacts of cryo-EM, visit our Life Sciences Electron Microscopy Learning Center.
Jeffrey Lengyel, Ph.D., is Principal Scientist of Life Sciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific.