New electron microscope for Sheffield scientists

There is excitement among scientists at the University of Sheffield as they unpack the latest state-of-the-art technology to arrive in the Faculty of Science.spore

Microscopists in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology have taken delivery of a new £2M cryo-transmission electron microscope (cryo-TEM) that will enable them to study the three dimensional shape of biological molecules at amazingly high resolution. The FEI Arctica microscope is an automated, high throughput instrument that will allow Faculty of Science researchers to process more samples and in far greater detail than before.

Professor Per Bullough, an expert in the field of electron microscopy explains, “Where early electron microscopes offered scientists the opportunity to visualise the rough shape of bacteria, viruses and biological molecules, microscopes such as the Arctica that we are in the process of setting up at the University of Sheffield, enable us to look at things in near atomic detail. This allows us to explore the architecture and mode of action of complex biological molecules and offers us the chance to, for example, find ways of blocking bacteria or viruses during the infection process.”

Electron microscopy is such an important technique in scientific research that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Richard Henderson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge), Jacques Dubochet (University of Lausanne) and Joachim Frank (Columbia University), "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution". Per was particularly excited by the prize because he was a PhD student in Richard Henderson’s lab in the 1980s and witnessed many of the early developments taking shape.

Here at the University of Sheffield the power of biological imaging was harnessed as one of our key strategic projects, Imagine: Imaging Life. Dr Julien Bergeron joined the Imagine: Imaging Life team in July 2017. He says, “Here in Sheffield we are using and developing a wide variety of microscopy techniques in order to answer some of the biggest questions in biology and medicine. For example, my own research studies the complexes involved in antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and in particular how bacteria interact with their environment as well as with the host during infection.”

But it’s not only researchers who use the University’s latest imaging technologies. Per and Julien will be welcoming three final year students to their lab to undertake research projects. The students will study the proteins involved in Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and will be among the first to use the new cryo-EM, highlighting the amazing opportunities students at the University of Sheffield have.

MLAThe Arctica cryo-EM is able to produce images of such incredibly fine detail because, instead of using light to form an image, the Arctica uses electrons; electrons are able to interact with the finest features of molecules in the way light cannot. One of the things that makes the Arctica special is that it is fitted with an exceptionally sensitive digital camera that freezes the motion of molecules and this makes the images much less ‘blurry’ so that near-atomic detail can be obtained.

The Arctica is currently undergoing final commissioning tests and University of Sheffield scientists hope to have it fully operational very soon.

For further information about the new cryo-electron microscope, please visit imagine-imaginglife.com/cryoem.html

Professor Per Bullough can be contacted on p.bullough@sheffield.ac.uk.

Dr Julien Bergeron can be contact on j.bergeron@sheffield.ac.uk.