The David Van Andel Advanced Cryo-Electron Microscopy Suite

What is cryo-EM?
Cryo-EM is short for cryo-electron microscopy, a technique that allows scientists to see tiny molecules down to 1/10,000th the width of a human hair. Although cryo-EM techniques have been around since the mid-1980s, recent advances in technology have led to a scientific revolution, giving scientists the ability to obtain more detailed images of cells, viruses and molecules in their natural state than ever before. In 2015, cryo-EM was named Nature’s Method of the Year.

What is structural biology?
Structural biology focuses on the shape of the molecules that make up a living organism. As many in the field say, structure is function, meaning that the architecture of a molecule directly informs its role and how it does its job.

Why is cryo-EM a game changer?
Cryo-EM allows scientists to more precisely see proteins and other important structures without many of the constraints posed by traditional methods.

To put its impact in context, in 2007 fewer than 10 molecular structures at less than 5 angstroms (a very tiny unit of measurement) were reported in the literature. Thanks to improvements in cryo-EM technology, by 2015 that number had shot up to nearly 200 (Egelman EH et al; 2016).

Why does structure matter?
Remember, structure informs function. A better understanding of the architecture of cells and molecules gives scientists important insight that allows for the development of new preventative measures, diagnostics and therapies for an untold number of diseases and health problems.

A classic example is that of the key and the lock. If scientists know what the lock looks like, they can develop a key to fit it. In much the same way, if they know what a virus looks like, they are much better equipped to develop a drug that can combat it.