Cryo tomography brings new life to the study of human biology at Yale
Soon after its 2017 installation at Yale’s West Campus, the new Titan Krios Cryo-Electron Microscope — or CryoEM, the technology at the center of the growing ‘resolution revolution’ and the tool used by three recent Nobel Prize winners — is beginning to show its value to scientists across Yale.
Until now, light and electron microscopes have limited scientists to studying biological samples at comparably lower resolutions.
“The fields of structural and cell biology are such great strengths at Yale, but we needed the CryoEM to get to the next exciting level,” said recent faculty recruit Jun Liu, who is an associate professor of microbial pathogenesis at Yale School of Medicine.
The new technology allows scientists to freeze whole live cells, enabling them to probe the tiniest forms of life in their search for knowledge underlying human disease.
“It took several decades for this technology to arrive, but now we’re beginning to really understand the molecular mechanisms bacteria use to spread infection in our bodies,” he said.
For the first time, Liu and his colleagues are using the CryoEM to understand important differences in the tiny molecular machines that help bacteria to move around and infect host cells.
“We can see a lot of detailed features that weren’t visible before,” says Liu. For example, the scientists are studying the motility — or independent movement — of the twisting bacterium spirochete, which uses its whip-like flagella to enable the bacteria to bore through vacuous environments in its hosts and spread diseases such as Lyme disease and syphilis.
Following the discovery by Yale’s Jorge Galan of needle-like secretion machines used by bacteria to inject toxins into a host cell, Liu and his colleagues at the Microbial Sciences Institute are using CryoEM to see the needle’s whole structure and how it transfers toxins to human cells.
“Lyme disease is caused by the highly motile bacteria,” continues Liu. “The more we understand the structure, motility and function of these tiny creatures we are going to be able to think about how we can nullify them.”
The new technology is providing new impetus in collaborations across Yale that are expected to have wide reaching impact.
“Harnessing the power of this new technology is no longer a question for one scientist in a lab,” says Liu. “We need to communicate what the CryoEM can do across Yale to a broad group of scientists. Having the technology here is an important step towards developing future medications.”