Skip to Content
SBMI Horizontal Logo

Modeling Techniques for the High-Resolution Interpretation of Cryo-Electron Microscopy Reconstructions

Author: Mirabela Rusu, MEng, Ms (2011)

Primary Advisor: Jack W. Smith, MD, PhD

Committee Members:  M. Sriram Iyengar, PhD; Todd R. Johnson, PhD; Robert W. Vogler, DSN, MEd

PhD Thesis, The University of Texas School of Biomedical Informatics at Houston.


Essential biological processes are governed by organized, dynamic interactions between multiple biomolecular systems. Complexes are thus formed to enable the biological function and get dissembled as the process is completed. Examples of such processes include the translation of the messenger RNA into protein by the ribosome, the folding of proteins by chaperonins or the entry of viruses in host cells. Understanding these fundamental processes by characterizing the molecular mechanisms that enable then, would allow the (better) design of therapies and drugs. Such molecular mechanisms may be revealed trough the structural elucidation of the biomolecular assemblies at the core of these processes. Various experimental techniques may be applied to investigate the molecular architecture of biomolecular assemblies. High-resolution techniques, such as X-ray crystallography, may solve the atomic structure of the system, but are typically constrained to biomolecules of reduced exibility and dimensions. In particular, X-ray crystallography requires the sample to form a three dimensional (3D) crystal lattice which is technically dicult, if not impossible, to obtain, especially for large, dynamic systems. Often these techniques solve the structure of the dierent constituent components within the assembly, but encounter diculties when investigating the entire system. On the other hand, imaging techniques, such as cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), are able to depict large systems in near-native environment, without requiring the formation of crystals. The structures solved by cryo-EM cover a wide range of resolutions, from very low level of detail where only the overall shape of the system is visible, to high-resolution that  approach, but not yet reach, atomic level of detail.

In this dissertation, several modeling methods are introduced to either integrate cryoEM datasets with structural data from X-ray crystallography, or to directly interpret the cryo-EM reconstruction. Such computational techniques were developed with the goal of creating an atomic model for the cryo-EM data. The low-resolution reconstructions lack the level of detail to permit a direct atomic interpretation, i.e. one can not reliably locate the atoms or amino-acid residues within the structure obtained by cryo-EM. Thereby one needs to consider additional information, for example, structural data from other sources such as X-ray crystallography, in order to enable such a high-resolution interpretation. Modeling techniques are thus developed to integrate the structural data from the dierent biophysical sources, examples including the work described in the manuscript I and II of this dissertation. At intermediate and high-resolution, cryo-EM reconstructions depict consistent 3D folds such as tubular features which in general correspond to alpha-helices. Such features can be annotated and later on used to build the atomic model of the system, see manuscript III as alternative.

Three manuscripts are presented as part of the PhD dissertation, each introducing a computational technique that facilitates the interpretation of cryo-EM reconstructions. The rst manuscript is an application paper that describes a heuristics to generate the atomic model for the protein envelope of the Rift Valley fever virus. The second manuscript introduces the evolutionary tabu search strategies to enable the integration of multiple component atomic structures with the cryo-EM map of their assembly. Finally, the third manuscript develops further the latter technique and apply it to annotate consistent 3D patterns in intermediate-resolution cryo-EM reconstructions.

The rst manuscript, titled An assembly model for Rift Valley fever virus, was submitted for publication in the Journal of Molecular Biology. The cryo-EM structure of the Rift Valley fever virus was previously solved at 27Å-resolution by Dr. Freiberg and collaborators. Such reconstruction shows the overall shape of the virus envelope, yet the reduced level of detail prevents the direct atomic interpretation. High-resolution structures are not yet available for the entire virus nor for the two dierent component glycoproteins that form its envelope. However, homology models may be generated for these glycoproteins based on similar structures that are available at atomic resolutions. The manuscript presents the steps required to identify an atomic model of the entire virus envelope, based on the low-resolution cryo-EM map of the envelope and the homology models of the two glycoproteins. Starting with the results of the exhaustive search to place the two glycoproteins, the model is built iterative by running multiple multi-body re nements to hierarchically generate models for the dierent regions of the envelope. The generated atomic model is supported by prior knowledge regarding virus biology and contains valuable information about the molecular architecture of the system. It provides the basis for further investigations seeking to reveal dierent processes in which the virus is involved such as assembly or fusion.

The second manuscript was recently published in the of Journal of Structural Biology (doi:10.1016/j.jsb.2009.12.028) under the title Evolutionary tabu search strategies for the simultaneous registration of multiple atomic structures in cryo-EM reconstructions. This manuscript introduces the evolutionary tabu search strategies applied to enable a multi-body registration. This technique is a hybrid approach that combines a genetic algorithm with a tabu search strategy to promote the proper exploration of the high-dimensional search space. Similar to the Rift Valley fever virus, it is common that the structure of a large multi-component assembly is available at low-resolution from cryo-EM, while high-resolution structures are solved for the dierent components but lack for the entire system. Evolutionary tabu search strategies enable the building of an atomic model for the entire system by considering simultaneously the dierent components. Such registration indirectly introduces spatial constrains as all components need to be placed within the assembly, enabling the proper docked in the low-resolution map of the entire assembly. Along with the method description, the manuscript covers the validation, presenting the benet of the technique in both synthetic and experimental test cases. Such approach successfully docked multiple components up to resolutions of 40Å.

The third manuscript is entitled Evolutionary Bidirectional Expansion for the Annotation of Alpha Helices in Electron Cryo-Microscopy Reconstructions and was submitted for publication in the Journal of Structural Biology. The modeling approach described in this manuscript applies the evolutionary tabu search strategies in combination with the bidirectional expansion to annotate secondary structure elements in intermediate resolution cryo-EM reconstructions. In particular, secondary structure elements such as alpha helices show consistent patterns in cryo-EM data, and are visible as rod-like patterns of high density. The evolutionary tabu search strategy is applied to identify the placement of the dierent alpha helices, while the bidirectional expansion characterizes their length and curvature. The manuscript presents the validation of the approach at resolutions ranging between 6 and 14Å, a level of detail where alpha helices are visible. Up to resolution of 12 Å, the method measures sensitivities between 70-100% as estimated in experimental test cases, i.e. 70-100% of the alpha-helices were correctly predicted in an automatic manner in the experimental data.

The three manuscripts presented in this PhD dissertation cover dierent computation methods for the integration and interpretation of cryo-EM reconstructions. The methods were developed in the molecular modeling software Sculptor ( and are available for the scientific community interested in the multi-resolution modeling of cryo-EM data. The work spans a wide range of resolution covering multi-body renement and registration at low-resolution along with annotation of consistent patterns at high-resolution. Such methods are essential for the modeling of cryo-EM data, and may be applied in other fields where similar spatial problems are encountered, such as medical imaging.