Proteins Take Shape with New Technology

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three scientists for their development of a new technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). This technique freezes proteins, and bombards them with electrons, allowing researchers to observe the building blocks of human cells.

In a recent podcast by Proto, Luke Chao, PhD, a researcher in the department of molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital, discussed the significance of cryo-EM and how this basic science technique could help advance clinical treatment.

Proteins as seen through cryo-EM
Over the last few years, researchers have published atomic structures of numerous complicated protein complexes. a. A protein complex that governs the circadian rhythm. b. A sensor of the type that reads pressure changes in the ear and allows us to hear. c. The Zika virus

Chao explained that cryo-EM provides scientists with an opportunity to better see the shapes of molecules. Proteins, such as hemoglobin and antibodies, are versatile molecules and their shapes can provide a lot of insight into how they work and their function. Understanding their function is especially important if researchers want to develop a therapy to modify or block its role.

Cryo-EM offers an advantage over previous microscope-based techniques because it allows scientists to see the protein in more shapes and stages of motion.

Think of how difficult it can be to take a good photo of fireworks, for example. Similarly, proteins are dynamic, moving molecules and cryo-EM allows scientists to get more snapshots of them in motion.

Cryo-EM resolution

Listen to the entire podcast episode on the Proto website.

(top photo courtesy of the Nobel Prize; bottom photo courtesy of the Nobel Prize- MARTIN HÖGBOM/THE ROYAL SWEDISH ACADEMY OF SCIENCES)




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