Electron microscopy snapshots of single particles from single cells

J Biol Chem. 2019 Feb 1;294(5):1602-1608. doi: 10.1074/jbc.RA118.006686. Epub 2018 Dec 12.


Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has become an indispensable tool for structural studies of biological macromolecules. Two additional predominant methods are available for studying the architectures of multiprotein complexes: 1) single-particle analysis of purified samples and 2) tomography of whole cells or cell sections. The former can produce high-resolution structures but is limited to highly purified samples, whereas the latter can capture proteins in their native state but has a low signal-to-noise ratio and yields lower-resolution structures. Here, we present a simple, adaptable method combining microfluidic single-cell extraction with single-particle analysis by EM to characterize protein complexes from individual Caenorhabditis elegans embryos. Using this approach, we uncover 3D structures of ribosomes directly from single embryo extracts. Moreover, we investigated structural dynamics during development by counting the number of ribosomes per polysome in early and late embryos. This approach has significant potential applications for counting protein complexes and studying protein architectures from single cells in developmental, evolutionary, and disease contexts.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans); cryo-electron microscopy; proteasome; ribosome; single-particle analysis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / embryology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism
  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins / ultrastructure*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / cytology
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / metabolism*
  • Macromolecular Substances / ultrastructure*
  • Microscopy, Electron / methods*
  • Models, Biological
  • Ribosomes / ultrastructure*
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods*


  • Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins
  • Macromolecular Substances