Cryo-electron tomography of clathrin-coated vesicles: structural implications for coat assembly

J Mol Biol. 2007 Jan 19;365(3):892-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2006.10.036. Epub 2006 Oct 14.


Clathrin-coated vesicles mediate vesicular traffic in cells. Three-dimensional image reconstructions of homogenous populations of in vitro assembled clathrin coats have yielded a molecular model for clathrin and its interactions with some of its partners. The intrinsic averaging required for those calculations has precluded detailed analysis of heterogeneous populations of clathrin-coated vesicles isolated from cells. We have therefore used cryo-electron tomography to study the lattice organization of individual clathrin-coated vesicles and the disposition of the captured vesicle with respect to the surrounding coat. We find a wide range of designs for the clathrin lattice, with different patterns of pentagonal, hexagonal, and occasionally heptagonal facets. Many coats, even smaller ones, enclose membrane vesicles, which are generally offset from the center of the clathrin shell. The electron density distribution between the coat and the underlying vesicle is not uniform, and the number of apparent contacts that anchor the clathrin lattice to the vesicle membrane is significantly less than the number of clathrin heavy chains in the assembly. We suggest that the eccentric position of the vesicle reflects the polarity of assembly, from initiation of coat formation to membrane pinching.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Cell Membrane / ultrastructure
  • Clathrin / ultrastructure
  • Clathrin-Coated Vesicles / ultrastructure*
  • Cryoelectron Microscopy / methods*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods*


  • Clathrin