Direct label-free imaging of nanodomains in biomimetic and biological membranes by cryogenic electron microscopy

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Aug 18;117(33):19943-19952. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2002200117. Epub 2020 Aug 5.


The nanoscale organization of biological membranes into structurally and compositionally distinct lateral domains is believed to be central to membrane function. The nature of this organization has remained elusive due to a lack of methods to directly probe nanoscopic membrane features. We show here that cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) can be used to directly image coexisting nanoscopic domains in synthetic and bioderived membranes without extrinsic probes. Analyzing a series of single-component liposomes composed of synthetic lipids of varying chain lengths, we demonstrate that cryo-EM can distinguish bilayer thickness differences as small as 0.5 Å, comparable to the resolution of small-angle scattering methods. Simulated images from computational models reveal that features in cryo-EM images result from a complex interplay between the atomic distribution normal to the plane of the bilayer and imaging parameters. Simulations of phase-separated bilayers were used to predict two sources of contrast between coexisting ordered and disordered phases within a single liposome, namely differences in membrane thickness and molecular density. We observe both sources of contrast in biomimetic membranes composed of saturated lipids, unsaturated lipids, and cholesterol. When extended to isolated mammalian plasma membranes, cryo-EM reveals similar nanoscale lateral heterogeneities. The methods reported here for direct, probe-free imaging of nanodomains in unperturbed membranes open new avenues for investigation of nanoscopic membrane organization.

Keywords: GPMVs; cryo-EM; liquid-disordered; liquid-ordered; nanodomains.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biomimetics
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Cryoelectron Microscopy / methods*
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry
  • Lipid Bilayers / metabolism
  • Liposomes / chemistry
  • Liposomes / metabolism
  • Membrane Microdomains / chemistry
  • Membrane Microdomains / metabolism
  • Membrane Microdomains / ultrastructure*


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Liposomes
  • Cholesterol