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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Challenges in solving structures from radiation-damaged tomograms of protein nanocrystals assessed by simulation.


Structure-determination methods are needed to resolve the atomic details that underlie protein function. X-ray crystallography has provided most of our knowledge of protein structure, but is constrained by the need for large, well ordered crystals and the loss of phase information. The rapidly developing methods of serial femtosecond crystallography, micro-electron diffraction and single-particle reconstruction circumvent the first of these limitations by enabling data collection from nanocrystals or purified proteins. However, the first two methods also suffer from the phase problem, while many proteins fall below the molecular-weight threshold required for single-particle reconstruction. Cryo-electron tomography of protein nanocrystals has the potential to overcome these obstacles of mainstream structure-determination methods. Here, a data-processing scheme is presented that combines routines from X-ray crystallography and new algorithms that have been developed to solve structures from tomograms of nanocrystals. This pipeline handles image-processing challenges specific to tomographic sampling of periodic specimens and is validated using simulated crystals. The tolerance of this workflow to the effects of radiation damage is also assessed. The simulations indicate a trade-off between a wider tilt range to facilitate merging data from multiple tomograms and a smaller tilt increment to improve phase accuracy. Since phase errors, but not merging errors, can be overcome with additional data sets, these results recommend distributing the dose over a wide angular range rather than using a finer sampling interval to solve the protein structure.

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