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Near-Atomic Resolution Now Possible with New Microscope


Dr. Joaquin Ortega

McMaster’s Electron Microscopy Facility will soon take delivery of one of the world’s most state-of-the-art microscopes.

Considered a game changer in the field of structural biology, the cryo-electron microscope, equipped with a highly sensitive direct electron detector camera, will allow McMaster researchers to study macromolecular structures at near-atomic resolution.

“If you cannot achieve near-atomic resolution in your structures, you will not succeed in this field of research,” says Dr. Joaquin Ortega, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences. “The resolution of an image captured on a microscope without a direct electron detector camera is simply too moderate, making it very difficult to publish your structures.”

Dr. Ortega, who is also the research director of the Electron Microscopy Facility in the Faculty of Health Sciences, was recently awarded $800,000 from the John Evans Leadership Fund. These funds, according to Dr. Ortega, will play a crucial role in the purchase of the much-needed microscope.

“When this new detector came out everything in the facility became obsolete pretty much overnight,” he explains. “Now we are in a position where we can upgrade the facility, which will put us on par with our competitors and allow our students to train on cutting-edge equipment.”

Until recently, solving atomic structures of large protein complexes was the exclusive domain of X-ray crystallographers. Recent advances in direct electron detector cameras, however, have empowered cryo-electron microscopists to obtain structures at comparable resolution.

Compared to X-ray crystallography, the amount of sample required for cryo-electron microscopy is several orders of magnitude lower – only a few micrograms of the specimen is actually needed – and specimen crystallization is no longer required.

And scientists around the world, including Dr. Ortega, are lauding the technique for its unprecedented potential to advance life science research.

“One of the many advantages to using cryo-electron microscopy is it allows for the complete observation of specimens in a hydrated state and under physiological conditions,” explains Dr. Ortega. “This capability is absolutely essential for the development of novel drugs and antibiotics.”

McMaster will be one of four facilities in Canada to house a cryo-electron microscope equipped with a direct electron detector camera, further cementing its reputation as a world-leading research institution.

Dr. Joaquin Ortega is a member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR).