The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded today to three pioneers of cryo-electron microscopy, a field that is revolutionizing our ability to visualize biomolecular machinery. Cryo-electron microscopy enables researchers to vastly expand the number of biological proteins that can be studied at near-atomic resolution, and allows them to be visualized in more true-to-life configurations.
State-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy facilities are only available at a small number of universities around the U.S., including the University of Michigan. U-M has experts who can discuss cryo-electron microscopy (contact Ian Demsky to arrange):
Michael Cianfrocco, assistant professor at the U-M Life Sciences Institute, where his lab is located, and in the Department of Biological Chemistry in the Medical School, uses cryo-EM to study how motor proteins transport intracellular cargo; problems in this process can result in neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases. He also works on developing new computing tools to make cryo-EM resources more widely available to biologists.
"The Nobel Prize announced today goes to three titans in the field who helped push the boundaries of technology to enable cryo-electron microscopy to become a powerful technique for visualizing protein structures," he said. "These scientists, along with countless others, have built an inclusive interdisciplinary field that has helped to re-shape the future of structural biology. The many recent achievements using cryo-EM could not have been possible without the basic science contributions and improvements made by these scientists.
"As a newer faculty member, the work of these renowned scientists inspires me to think creatively and with perseverance as I try to develop new tools to help advance this fast-growing field."
Melanie Ohi, associate professor at the U-M Life Sciences Institute, where her lab is located, and in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Medical School, uses cryo-EM, to investigate how H. pylori bacteria interact with and alter cellular membranes; H. pylori infection is the largest risk factor for gastric cancer. She also studies the functional organization of the spliceosome—large macromolecular machines that enable the human body to make about 90,000 different proteins from instructions encoded on only 25,000 genes. Before coming to U-M, Ohi served as the scientific director of the cryo-EM facility at Vanderbilt University.
"The awarding of the Nobel Prize to these accomplished scientists reflects, I believe, just how much cryo-electron microscopy is poised to transform how we study biology," she said. "Cryo-EM is an amazing tool, which has reached new heights thanks to recent advances in imaging and computing—and its potential impact is even greater when EM analysis is combined with other tools, such as proteomic, genetic, and biochemical studies.
"This award is a testament to the early efforts of many single particle cryo-EM pioneers in persevering in this field of study when most structural biologists thought pairing 'high resolution' with 'electron microscopy' was an impossibility for biological samples. Without these collective efforts this important structural biology technique would have never realized its full potential."
Roger Cone, the Mary Sue Coleman Director of the U-M Life Sciences Institute, has overseen continuing investment in the institute's expertise in structural biology, which includes cryo-electron microscopy.
"At the U-M Life Sciences Institute, we've seen firsthand the power of structural biology—actually being able to see proteins and complexes at near-atomic resolutions—in understanding Zika, or the biological machine that untangles the amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer's, or better understanding G protein-coupled receptors, which are intermediaries for molecular messages related to nearly every function within the human body," said Cone, the Asa Gray Collegiate Professor of the Life Sciences and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.
"The awarding of this Nobel Prize serves to underscore how important these techniques and technologies will be for the coming decades of biological discovery."