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Perspective: Emerging strategies for determining atomic-resolution structures of macromolecular complexes within cells


In principle, electron cryo-tomography (cryo-ET) of thin portions of cells provides high-resolution images of the three-dimensional spatial arrangement of all members of the proteome. In practice, however, radiation damage creates a tension between recording images at many different tilt angles, but at correspondingly reduced exposure levels, versus limiting the number of tilt angles in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Either way, it is challenging to read the available information out at the level of atomic structure. Here, we first review work that explores the optimal strategy for data collection, which currently seems to favor the use of a limited angular range for tilting the sample or even the use of a single image to record the high-resolution information. Looking then to the future, we point to the alternative of so-called "deconvolution microscopy", which may be applied to tilt-series or optically-sectioned, focal series data. Recording data as a focal series has the advantage that little or no translational alignment of frames might be needed, and a three-dimensional reconstruction might require only 2/3 the number of images as does standard tomography. We also point to the unexploited potential of phase plates to increase the contrast, and thus to reduce the electron exposure levels while retaining the ability align and merge the data. In turn, using much lower exposures per image could have the advantage that high-resolution information is retained throughout the full data-set, whether recorded as a tilt series or a focal series of images.

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