Cutting edge UMMS Cryo-Electron Microscopy facility opens

First New England installation of transformative technology to serve academia and industry

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

September 27, 2016
  The Talos-Arctica cryo-electron microscope, pictured here through the window of the control room, is one of two state-of-the-art systems housed in the new Massachusetts Facility for High Resolution Cryo Electron Microscopy at UMass Medical School.
 

The Talos-Arctica cryo-electron microscope, pictured here through the window of the control room, is one of two state-of-the-art systems housed in the new Massachusetts Facility for High Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy at UMass Medical School.

The Massachusetts Facility for High-Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy at UMass Medical School is opening on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The first-of-its-kind facility in New England opens new windows into the world of biology with the ability to see single molecules and their dynamics and macromolecular assemblies inside cells in unprecedented detail.

“Scientists and industry partners understand that this will transform how all of us do science,” said Jean King, PhD, associate provost for biomedical research, director of the Center for Comparative Neuroimaging, and professor of psychiatry, radiology and neurology. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to assume a leadership role with a cutting edge technology that will be used by a consortium of academic and commercial partners.”

Dubbed the “research method of the year” by the journal Nature Methods, cryo-EM has broad applications in structural biology and drug design. The breakthrough technology visualizes the detailed structure of cells, viruses and proteins at near-atomic resolution, offering unprecedented potential to advance treatments and cures for conditions including viral and bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

The newly built state-of-the-art facility is designed to operate around the clock for maximum productivity with two cryo-EM systems. The Titan Krios was acquired in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, supported by a grant of $5 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. The $4 million Talos-Arctica system was acquired with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. HMMI has also funded the upgrade of electron detectors, further enhancing the facility’s efficiency and speed of processing. UMMS has invested $3 million in renovations on its main campus to house the facility.

The facility is being run under the direction of physicist and materials scientist Chen Xu, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry & molecular biology. Formerly at Brandeis University, Dr. Xu is internationally recognized for his cryo-EM expertise, bringing 30 years of electron microscopy and 15 years of cryo-EM experience to the new equipment suite. With extensive knowledge of both single-particle and electron tomography cryo-EM techniques, Xu has contributed to the development of software for automated microscope operation and the electron detectors that are currently revolutionizing the field, with a focus on optimizing image quality and maximizing system output.

“Seeing how a molecule moves to perform its function with cryo-EM adds new dimensions to our work,” said UMMS structural biologist Andrei Korostelev, PhD, associate professor in the RNA Therapeutics Institute and of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology. Dr. Korostelev studies how cells utilize ribosome complexes to make proteins that are their building blocks. “With cryo-EM, we can look at detailed mechanisms and dynamics in molecules and complexes of molecules to understand their functions, dissecting each step to have a high-resolution picture of how they work.”

Beyond being an invaluable resource for UMMS investigators, the UMMS cryo-EM facility’s capacity for work ranging from basic scientific inquiries to drug development has outside users lining up to capitalize on them.

“We expect to bring in much needed resources through access and usage fees,” said King, who is inking contracts with academic institutions and industry partners. Pharmaceutical companies including industry giant Sanofi/Genzyme and Tetragenetics, whose drug development platform will revolve around cryo-EM, are exploring use of the facility.

“We are thrilled to be holding the keys to what will bring more collaborators and faculty to our institution, diversify our funding sources and lead to new discoveries,” said King. “We are proud to be a public medical school at the cutting edge. Cryo-EM is a useful tool for everyone in biology across all disciplines.”

Related stories on UMassMedNow:
Massachusetts Facility for High-Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy opening at UMMS
Massachusetts Life Sciences Center announces $5M award to UMMS for Cryo-Electron Microscope

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