Single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (EM) is currently gaining attention for the ability to calculate structures that reach sub-5 Å resolutions; however, the technique is more than just an alternative approach to X-ray crystallography. Molecular machines work via dynamic conformational changes, making structural flexibility the hallmark of function. While the dynamic regions in molecules are essential, they are also the most challenging to structurally characterize. Single-particle EM has the distinct advantage of being able to directly visualize purified molecules without the formation of ordered arrays of molecules locked into identical conformations. Additionally, structures determined using single-particle EM can span resolution ranges from very low- to atomic-levels (>30-1.8 Å), sometimes even in the same structure. The ability to accommodate various resolutions gives single-particle EM the unique capacity to structurally characterize dynamic regions of biological molecules, thereby contributing essential structural information needed for the development of molecular models that explain function. Further, many important molecular machines are intrinsically dynamic and compositionally heterogeneous. Structures of these complexes may never reach sub-5 Å resolutions due to this flexibility required for function. Thus, the biochemical quality of the sample, as well as, the calculation and interpretation of low- to mid-resolution cryo-EM structures (30-8 Å) remains critical for generating insights into the architecture of many challenging biological samples that cannot be visualized using alternative techniques.
© 2016 The Protein Society.