Published on Fri Oct 08 2021

Effects of cryo-EM cooling on structural ensembles

Bock, L. V., Grubmüller, H.

structure determination by cryo electron microscopy provides information on structural heterogeneity and ensembles at atomic resolution. To obtain cryo-EM images of macromolecules, samples are first rapidly cooled down to cryogenic temperatures.

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Abstract

Structure determination by cryo electron microscopy (cryo-EM) provides information on structural heterogeneity and ensembles at atomic resolution. To obtain cryo-EM images of macromolecules, the samples are first rapidly cooled down to cryogenic temperatures. To what extent the structural ensemble is perturbed by the cooling is currently unknown. Here, to quantify the effects of cooling, we combined continuum model calculations of the temperature drop, molecular dynamics simulations of a ribosome complex before and during cooling with kinetic models. Our results suggest that three effects markedly contribute to the narrowing of the structural ensembles: thermal contraction, reduced thermal motion within local potential wells, and the equilibration into lower free-energy conformations by overcoming separating free-energy barriers. During cooling, barrier heights below 10 kJ/mol were found to be overcome resulting in reduction of B-factors in the ensemble imaged by cryo-EM. Our approach now enables the quantification of the heterogeneity of room-temperature ensembles from cryo-EM structures.