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Speaker Dr Julia Mahamid, Structural and Computational Biology Unit, European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg, Germany

Title Enabling discovery by in-cell structural biology

Host Roland Fleck


Abstract Most structural biology focuses on the structure and function of individual macromolecular complexes, but falls short of revealing how they come together to give rise to cellular functions. Here, cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) provides a unique opportunity for obtaining structural information across a wide range of spatial scales - from small model organisms, intact cells and 3D cultures frozen in their close-to-native state to individual macromolecules embedded in their functional environments. We develop and employ advanced sample preparation techniques for in-cell cryo-ET, including cryo-focused ion beam thinning guided by 3D correlative fluorescence microscopy. Preparations of such site-specific ‘electron-transparent windows’ in appropriate model systems enable assignment of molecular structures directly from three-dimensional stills of intact cells and reveal their molecular sociology. Using the genome-reduced and exceptionally small human pathogen Mycoplasma pneumoniae as a minimal cell model, we further demonstrate the synergistic application of whole-cell crosslinking mass spectrometry and cellular cryo-ET and determined an in-cell integrative model of actively transcribing RNA polymerases coupled to a translating ribosomes. Recent computational breakthroughs now allow resolving these molecular machines to residue-level directly inside the cell, reveal small molecule antibiotics bound to their active site in ribosomes within the intact pathogen, provide snapshots of their structural dynamics along reaction cycles, illuminate the existence and hint at functions of previously unknown macromolecular complexes. These cutting-edge methodologies unlock an enormous potential for system-spanning discovery across a broad range of biologically complexity enabled by label-free in-cell structural biology.

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New Hunt’s House
Great Maze Pond, London, SE1 9RT