University of Dundee

Cutting-edge microscope revealed at opening of new £5m structural biology centre

12 Sep 2018

Scientists launched the new £5 million Scottish Centre for Macromolecular Imaging (SCMI) yesterday at the Medical Research Council University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR). It will be home to a cutting-edge JEOL CryoARM 300, the first cryo-electron microscope of this model in the United Kingdom, which will be used to image biological molecules at near atomic level. The centre is a collaboration between researchers from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and St Andrews. The national centre brings together a network of structural biologists who will collaborate on developing projects, training and sharing best practices.

The opening of the SCMI was centred around a two-day symposium exploring the technology of cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), which allows scientists to study and visualise the biological processes in molecules and cells at very high resolution. Dr David Bhella, Director of the SCMI, said: “Cryo-EM is revolutionising the field of structural biology. The Scottish Centre for Macromolecular Imaging is a tremendous opportunity not only for the CVR, but also for life sciences in Scotland.”

The launch included the unveiling of the SCMI’s CryoArm 300. It is a high-performance 300 kiloelectronvolt automated cryo-EM acquired from JEOL, a major developer and manufacturer of electron microscopes. The instrument has the capacity to hold twelve specimens at cryogenic (-196 C) temperatures and is fully automated, allowing for data collection to be run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The technology will be used to support vital research into diseases posing the greatest threat to human and animal health, providing greater capabilities in areas such as vaccine development, cancer research, drug design and discovery. Cryo-EM uses flash-freezing of bio-molecules at extremely cold temperatures to preserve their structure for imaging. The technique has been used for viruses, mitochondria, receptors and enzyme complexes, providing an up-close glimpse at how molecular machines within our bodies work and the minute details of their structures.

Investment for the centre was awarded through the MRC to enhance structural and cellular biology research, and is part of an £11.3m government funding boost by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Dr Declan Mulkeen, Chief of Strategy at the MRC, said: “We are delighted to be able to provide this timely investment in a new cryo-EM facility at the CVR. This is part of a wider programme of investment at the Universities of Leicester, Oxford and Glasgow. These new cryo-EM facilities will help tackle important biological questions at new scales and provide crucial insights into the structure-based drug design, helping to advance human health.”

The SCMI was opened by Richard Henderson FRS, Nobel Laureate 2017 for Chemistry, and attended by world-leading investigators and keynote speakers from around the globe. Dr Henderson, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said: “Cryo-EM, after many years of technical improvements, has now become an immensely powerful method for determining the structures of biological molecules and molecular assemblies that have resisted many other approaches. The new SCMI provides a local capability for world-class structural biology on viruses, immune complexes and other macromolecular assemblies.”

Additional support for the SCMI came from the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA) and the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research. A further charitable donation has been made by the M J M Smith Trust for the supply of essential computer equipment.

Story courtesy of the Medical Research Council.

Professor Tom Owen-Hughes is the Dundee representative on the SCMI management committee. Anyone wishing to access the facilities in Glasgow should contact Tom.

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