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Life at the atomic level

One of the most important breakthroughs in 2017 according to Science magazine: a cryogenic electron microscope (cryo-EM) that allows obtaining images of atomic components with excellent resolution

The innovative method allows researchers to examine biological molecules, such as the Zika virus, at an unprecedented level of detail [courtesy:]
The innovative method allows researchers to examine biological molecules, such as the Zika virus, at an unprecedented level of detail [courtesy:]
[Translation by Dr. Nachmani Moshe]

Rare is the situation in which an invention achieves the highest honor of the scientific world, in the form of a Nobel Prize, while its influence continues to ebb and flow. The past year has been the year of cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a method that allows scientists to obtain clear, still images of complex molecules as they react with one another. In 2017, the method was able to generate multiple insights into the way in which important proteins work, in this year the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a network of research centers based on cryogenic electron microscopy throughout the country, and some of the pioneers of the method They even won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The method uses liquid ethane to quickly freeze molecules during their movement in a solution of water. So, the researchers are able to view these samples under an electron microscope and harness computer software to sift through the images and reassemble the information for a clear, sharp picture of the structure. Unlike X-ray crystallography - the most common method today in the field of structural biology - a cryogenic electron microscope does not require the formation of the target molecules, the most challenging step in the existing method, and in light of the fact that the molecules are right during the reaction between them, it is possible to gain many insights into their activity. The basis of the method has existed for many years, but the improvements in the equipment, in the software responsible for rapid processing and analysis of the images, and in work procedures that reduce errors in the system, have all contributed to a breakthrough in this method over the past few years.

Thanks to the acceptance of separation power at an almost atomic level, a separation power that did not exist before, the method makes it possible to explain long-standing observations in the field of biochemistry and genetics. This year, the method allowed the researchers to obtain new images regarding the activity of spliceosomes, important systems for processing RNA, regarding the proteins that build the cell membranes and insights regarding those enzymes that repair DNA fragments.

The advanced method also makes it possible to obtain high resolution models of the complex fibers responsible for creating the plaque layer that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, and showed exactly how the CRISPR gene editing system captures and edits the DNA. In addition, the researchers utilize the capabilities of the method to examine small and large molecules, and to decipher the structures of the red algae responsible for capturing the light and, in addition, to observe small protein systems that have not been observed before, certainly not with the high resolution obtained thanks to the method.

2017 summary on the science website:

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