NMC: Tom Terwilliger Teaches Course On Cryo-EM And Crystallography


Tom Terwilliger recently taught a class titled, Cryo-EM and Crystallography in the Forefront of Structural Biology in Buenos Aires. Courtesy photo


Tom Terwilliger, a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist and New Mexico Consortium  affiliate, recently taught a class titled, Cryo-EM and Crystallography in the Forefront of Structural Biology held on Sept. 4-5 at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is an emerging structural biology technique. In cryo-EM, the biological sample is prepared under cryogenic conditions. Cryo-EM is useful because it allows the observation of specimens that have not been stained or fixed in any way, showing them in the environment in which they were found.  This differs from the usual method of X-ray crystallography. In X-ray crystallography, the specimen must be crystallized, which is a difficult process, and placed in non-physiological environments, which can lead to functional changes.

The resolution of cryo-EM maps is steadily improving. Near-atomic resolution of some structures have now been attained, including those of viruses, ribosomes, mitochondrial protein complexes, ion channels, and enzyme complexes. Researchers can use this method to calculate the structure of a biological macromolecule that has been flash-frozen in several conformations and thus can understand the mechanism by which it works.

During the September course, Tom taught 32 students and postdocs from Argentina about the theory of X-ray crystallography and Cryo-electron microscopy. He also taught students how to use the Phenix software that he helped write to carry out both of these techniques.

Learning cryo-EM is important because the students will be the next generation of scientists figuring out the shapes of protein molecules such as proteins from human cells. This information can be used to design drugs that turn on or off these proteins and help control cancer and diseases.

Tom is next teaching Oct. 15-19 at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory in New York where he will be one of the speakers in a class on X-Ray Methods in Structural Biology.  This course will teach participants extensive hands-on training in the lab on how to crystallize multiple proteins, and to determine their crystal structures through several methods.