Cryo-electron microscopy of membrane proteins

Methods. 2018 Sep 1;147:176-186. doi: 10.1016/j.ymeth.2018.04.018. Epub 2018 Apr 25.


Membrane proteins represent a large proportion of the proteome, but have characteristics that are problematic for many methods in modern molecular biology (that have often been developed with soluble proteins in mind). For structural studies, low levels of expression and the presence of detergent have been thorns in the flesh of the membrane protein experimentalist. Here we discuss the use of cryo-electron microscopy in breakthrough studies of the structures of membrane proteins. This method can cope with relatively small quantities of sample and with the presence of detergent. Until recently, cryo-electron microscopy could not deliver high-resolution structures of membrane proteins, but recent developments in transmission electron microscope technology and in the image processing of single particles imaged in the microscope have revolutionized the field, allowing high resolution structures to be obtained. Here we focus on the specific issues surrounding the application of cryo-electron microscopy to the study of membrane proteins, especially in the choice of a system to keep the protein soluble.

Keywords: Detergent; Electron microscopy; Membrane proteins; Micelle protein structure; Nanodisc.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cryoelectron Microscopy / methods*
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Maleates / chemistry
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Micelles
  • Polystyrenes / chemistry


  • Maleates
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Micelles
  • Polystyrenes
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator
  • styrene-maleic acid polymer