'Transformative' microscope to be installed at Purdue

April 12, 2019

High-tech machine to be purchased by six organizations, including the IBRI

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — The cryo-electron microscope is a modern marvel of a machine that allows scientists to look at how proteins and viruses are built atom by atom. And it’s so important to the science that the original developers of this technique received the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work.

It’s also important enough to research that six major life science entities – Purdue University, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Illinois-Champaign, Eli Lilly and Company, and the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute – have pooled their resources together to purchase the latest version of the nearly $9 million machine.

"This technology has transformed the science of structural biology. It gives us maps to the molecules of life," says Richard Kuhn, Purdue's Trent and Judith Anderson Distinguished Professor in Science and the Krenicki Family Director of Purdue's Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease. "Scientists can then use this information to identify possible target sites for drugs, vaccines or other therapies."

This will be the second cryo-electron microscope at Purdue, and the new one will be housed along with the first in Purdue's Wayne T. and Mary T. Hockmeyer Hall of Structural Biology in Purdue's Discovery Park.

To install the new microscope, Purdue will need to make an additional $1 million in renovations to Hockmeyer Hall, which includes installing a stabilization platform. The work is expected to be completed in early 2020. Both instruments are Thermo Scientific Krios Cryo Transmission Electron Microscopes  manufactured by Thermo Fisher Scientific.

"This new microscope will be two to three times faster than the one we currently have, although we will be updating our current machine," Kuhn says. "This means we will soon be able to do two to three times as many structures on just this one machine. Also, our current microscope is so oversubscribed that if a researcher has a virus they want to get information on right away, it could be weeks before we can get that scheduled."

Anantha Shekhar, MD, executive associate dean for research affairs at Indiana University School of Medicine and founding director of the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, says, “this collaboration is a superior example of the kind of statewide impact that can be made through shared vision and resources.

"Bringing an expanded cryoEM platform to Indiana makes the state more competitive in attracting scientists, by giving them access to cutting-edge technology and tools that enable scientific breakthroughs. We are grateful for the INCITE program, supported by the Lilly Endowment, for making this collaboration possible.”

Previous generation cryo-electron microscopes utilize CCD circuits (which use the same technology found in smartphone cameras) for their images. The new generation of cryo-electron microscopes, including the machine to be installed at Purdue, instead utilize a direct electron detector and software similar to that used in movie production to clean up the images.

According to the National Institutes of Health, national use of cryo-electron microscopy is "hampered by inadequate access to equipment and a limited workforce." To help address this problem, in 2018 the NIH named Purdue as one of four sites charged with developing instructional materials and training for the technology.

In 2016, Kuhn, along with Michael Rossmann, Purdue's Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, were the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus by using cryo-electron microscopy.

"When we did the Zika virus it only took us a week to get a structure, which was unprecedented at the time," Kuhn says. "It's much more routine now." 

For more information, visit https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2019/Q2/transformative-microscope-to-be-installed-at-purdue.html

Writer: Steve Tally, 765-494-9809, steve@purdue.edu, @sciencewriter Sources: Richard Kuhn, 765-494-1164, kuhnr@purdue.edu, @directorPI4D Anantha Shekhar, 317-278-2877, ashekhar@iu.edu