Lipid Nanodiscs as a Tool for High-Resolution Structure Determination of Membrane Proteins by Single-Particle Cryo-EM

Methods Enzymol. 2017;594:1-30. doi: 10.1016/bs.mie.2017.05.007. Epub 2017 Jul 19.


The "resolution revolution" in electron cryomicroscopy (cryo-EM) profoundly changed structural biology of membrane proteins. Near-atomic structures of medium size to large membrane protein complexes can now be determined without crystallization. This significantly accelerates structure determination and also the visualization of small bound ligands. There is an additional advantage: the structure of membrane proteins can now be studied in their native or nearly native lipid bilayer environment. A popular lipid bilayer mimetic are lipid nanodiscs, which have been thoroughly characterized and successfully utilized in multiple applications. Here, we provide a guide for using lipid nanodiscs as a tool for single-particle cryo-EM of membrane proteins. We discuss general methodological aspects and specific challenges of protein reconstitution into lipid nanodiscs and high-resolution structure determination of the nanodisc-embedded complexes. Furthermore, we describe in detail case studies of two successful applications of nanodiscs in cryo-EM, namely, the structure determination of the rabbit ryanodine receptor, RyR1, and the pore-forming TcdA1 toxin subunit from Photorhabdus luminescens. We discuss cryo-EM-specific hurdles concerning sample homogeneity, distribution of reconstituted particles in vitreous ice, and solutions to overcome them.

Keywords: Annular lipids; Electron cryomicroscopy; High-resolution structure; Ion channels; Lipid bilayer; Lipid composition; Lipid membrane mimetic; Membrane proteins; Membrane scaffold protein; Toxins.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacterial Toxins / chemistry
  • Cryoelectron Microscopy / instrumentation
  • Cryoelectron Microscopy / methods*
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry
  • Lipids / chemistry
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Structure
  • Nanostructures / chemistry*
  • Rabbits
  • Ryanodine Receptor Calcium Release Channel / chemistry


  • Bacterial Toxins
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Lipids
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Ryanodine Receptor Calcium Release Channel