Knowing the structure of a molecule reveals important information about how it functions and can provide insight into potential drug targets for fighting disease. Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is a method used to image frozen biological molecules without the use of structure-altering dyes or fixatives, providing a more accurate picture of the molecules and greater understanding of biological function. However, the high cost of cryo-EM limits the method’s availability to researchers. The NIH Common Fund's Transformative High Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy program aims to provide nationwide access for researchers to cryo-EM through the creation of national service centers, improvement of the technology, and the development of an expert workforce.
Structure determines function in biology. Understanding the structure and organization of a molecule reveals its essential machinery, how it operates, and potential drug targets in disease. One method used to determine structure is cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), which uses electron beams to image frozen biological molecules. Cryo-EM can be more precise and accurate than other imaging methods because it does not require structure-altering dyes or fixatives. Recent advances in detector sensitivity and image analysis have extended cryo-EM resolutions to the atomic level, making it possible to image small molecules in great detail. A related field, cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET), provides imaging of frozen cells or sections of cells in order to visualize molecular complexes in the context of the cell. Cryo-EM and cryo-ET promise to open up previously inaccessible levels of biological organization to high-resolution analyses, thus increasing our understanding of biological functions and molecular interactions that are essential for structure-based therapeutics.
Despite the promise of cryo-EM and cryo-ET, the prohibitively high cost of microscopes and their operations have stymied the acceptance of cryo-EM by the wider scientific field. To make cryo-EM and cryo-ET more accessible, the Transformative High Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy program will
- Provide researchers access to state-of-the-art equipment, technical support, and instruction for the production and analysis of high-resolution data using cryo-EM and cryo-ET technologies.
- Develop an expert workforce of cryo-EM practitioners.
- Advance cryo-EM and cryo-ET technologies to be more sensitive, practical, and affordable.
This page last reviewed on November 14, 2017