New Microscope Directly Images Protein Atoms

There’s an old joke that you can’t trust atoms — they make up everything. But until fairly recently, there was no real way to see individual atoms. You could infer things about them using X-ray crystallography or measure their pull on tiny probes using atomic force microscopes, but not take a direct image. Until now. Two laboratories recently used cryo-electron microscopy to directly image atoms in a protein molecule with a resolution of about 1.2 x 10-7 millimeters or 1.2 ångströms. The previous record was 1.54 ångströms.

Recent improvements in electron beam technology helped, as did a device that ensures electrons that strike the sample travel at nearly the same speeds. The latter technique resulted in images so clear, researchers could identify individual hydrogen atoms in the apoferritin molecule and the water surrounding it.

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