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      Cryo-electron tomography: The challenge of doing structural biology in situ

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          Electron microscopy played a key role in establishing cell biology as a discipline, by producing fundamental insights into cellular organization and ultrastructure. Many seminal discoveries were made possible by the development of new sample preparation methods and imaging modalities. Recent technical advances include sample vitrification that faithfully preserves molecular structures, three-dimensional imaging by electron tomography, and improved image-processing methods. These new techniques have enabled the extraction of high fidelity structural information and are beginning to reveal the macromolecular organization of unperturbed cellular environments.

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          Most cited references 106

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          The cell as a collection of protein machines: preparing the next generation of molecular biologists.

           Bruce Alberts (1998)
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            Macromolecular architecture in eukaryotic cells visualized by cryoelectron tomography.

            Electron tomography of vitrified cells is a noninvasive three-dimensional imaging technique that opens up new vistas for exploring the supramolecular organization of the cytoplasm. We applied this technique to Dictyostelium cells, focusing on the actin cytoskeleton. In actin networks reconstructed without prior removal of membranes or extraction of soluble proteins, the cross-linking of individual microfilaments, their branching angles, and membrane attachment sites can be analyzed. At a resolution of 5 to 6 nanometers, single macromolecules with distinct shapes, such as the 26S proteasome, can be identified in an unperturbed cellular environment.
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              Disclosure of the mycobacterial outer membrane: cryo-electron tomography and vitreous sections reveal the lipid bilayer structure.

              The cell walls of mycobacteria form an exceptional permeability barrier, and they are essential for virulence. They contain extractable lipids and long-chain mycolic acids that are covalently linked to peptidoglycan via an arabinogalactan network. The lipids were thought to form an asymmetrical bilayer of considerable thickness, but this could never be proven directly by microscopy or other means. Cryo-electron tomography of unperturbed or detergent-treated cells of Mycobacterium smegmatis embedded in vitreous ice now reveals the native organization of the cell envelope and its delineation into several distinct layers. The 3D data and the investigation of ultrathin frozen-hydrated cryosections of M. smegmatis, Myobacterium bovis bacillus Calmette-Guérin, and Corynebacterium glutamicum identified the outermost layer as a morphologically symmetrical lipid bilayer. The structure of the mycobacterial outer membrane necessitates considerable revision of the current view of its architecture. Conceivable models are proposed and discussed. These results are crucial for the investigation and understanding of transport processes across the mycobacterial cell wall, and they are of particular medical relevance in the case of pathogenic mycobacteria.

                Author and article information

                J Cell Biol
                J. Cell Biol
                The Journal of Cell Biology
                The Rockefeller University Press
                5 August 2013
                : 202
                : 3
                : 407-419
                Max-Planck-Institute of Biochemistry, Am Klopferspitz 18, 82152 Martinsried, Germany
                Author notes
                Correspondence to Wolfgang Baumeister: baumeist@ 123456biochem.mpg.de
                © 2013 Lučić et al.

                This article is distributed under the terms of an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike–No Mirror Sites license for the first six months after the publication date (see http://www.rupress.org/terms). After six months it is available under a Creative Commons License (Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, as described at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/).


                Cell biology


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