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Keywords:

  • automated workflows;
  • cellular architecture;
  • cryo-electron microscopy;
  • 3D imaging;
  • electron crystallography;
  • integrated structural biology;
  • molecular reconstructions;
  • single particle analysis;
  • tomography;
  • viral structures

Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is increasingly becoming a mainstream technology for studying the architecture of cells, viruses and protein assemblies at molecular resolution. Recent developments in microscope design and imaging hardware, paired with enhanced image processing and automation capabilities, are poised to further advance the effectiveness of cryo-EM methods. These developments promise to increase the speed and extent of automation, and to improve the resolutions that may be achieved, making this technology useful to determine a wide variety of biological structures. Additionally, established modalities for structure determination, such as X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, are being routinely integrated with cryo-EM density maps to achieve atomic-resolution models of complex, dynamic molecular assemblies. In this review, which is directed towards readers who are not experts in cryo-EM methodology, we provide an overview of emerging themes in the application of this technology to investigate diverse questions in biology and medicine. We discuss the ways in which these methods are being used to study structures of macromolecular assemblies that range in size from whole cells to small proteins. Finally, we include a description of how the structural information obtained by cryo-EM is deposited and archived in a publicly accessible database.