While crystallography and NMR are useful for defining the structural characteristics of proteins, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) may be the most useful technique for investigating the structure of large biomolecular assemblies. Rapid advances in the technique have brought it to the point where it can deliver atomic-resolution models, without the need for crystallization or any relevant upper limit on the size of the particle to be studied.
Under certain circumstances, however, it can be difficult for cryo-EM to determine interior details of these complexes. For instance, the arrangement of protein and DNA inside the bacteriophage ΦKZ, a potentially therapeutic virus that attacks Pseudomonas aeruginosa, cannot easily be visualized because these components are coiled together so closely. In a paper published in Science last week (1), a team from the NIH and the University of Maryland addressed this problem by destroying the protein component and using cryo-EM to characterize the void left behind.
Hitting ice-embedded virus particles with large amounts of electrons caused the formation of “bubbles” that could be seen in the electron micrographs. This bombardment created high-pressure bubbles of hydrogen that destroyed the internal protein at relatively low radiation levels. The external proteins composing the viral capsid, however, survived the treatment. The authors propose that the surrounding nucleic acid prevented the radiation products from diffusing away, so that the interior proteins became more sensitive to radiation damage.
Using cryo-EM studies of the irradiated capsids, the authors were able to determine the location and shape of the inner protein mass by examining the void left behind when it was destroyed. They found that it had a multi-tiered structure with six-fold symmetry, and that it was positioned at an angle that matched the DNA packing. This suggests that the inner body assists in organizing and packaging the DNA.
In addition to providing insight about this particular virus, the authors suggest that this approach could be used to study other challenging subjects. They specifically mention condensed chromatin as a potential target, but in principle this method could be applied to any situation where materials with differential sensitivity to radiation are tightly packed together.
1. Wu, W., Thomas, J., Cheng, N., Black, L., & Steven, A. (2012). Bubblegrams Reveal the Inner Body of Bacteriophage ΦKZ Science, 335 (6065), 182-182 DOI: 10.1126/science.1214120