Structure of the bacterial ribosome at 2 Å resolution

Elife. 2020 Sep 14:9:e60482. doi: 10.7554/eLife.60482.


Using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), we determined the structure of the Escherichia coli 70S ribosome with a global resolution of 2.0 Å. The maps reveal unambiguous positioning of protein and RNA residues, their detailed chemical interactions, and chemical modifications. Notable features include the first examples of isopeptide and thioamide backbone substitutions in ribosomal proteins, the former likely conserved in all domains of life. The maps also reveal extensive solvation of the small (30S) ribosomal subunit, and interactions with A-site and P-site tRNAs, mRNA, and the antibiotic paromomycin. The maps and models of the bacterial ribosome presented here now allow a deeper phylogenetic analysis of ribosomal components including structural conservation to the level of solvation. The high quality of the maps should enable future structural analyses of the chemical basis for translation and aid the development of robust tools for cryo-EM structure modeling and refinement.

Keywords: Cryo-EM; E. coli; aminoglycoside; antibiotics; molecular biophysics; post-transcriptional modifications; post-translational modifications; ribosome; structural biology.

Plain language summary

Inside cells, proteins are produced by complex molecular machines called ribosomes. Techniques that allow scientists to visualize ribosomes at the atomic level, such as cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), help shed light on the structure of these molecular machines, revealing details of how they build proteins. Understanding how ribosomes work has many benefits, including the development of new antibiotics that can kill bacteria without affecting animal cells. Watson et al. used cryo-EM techniques with increased resolution to examine the ribosomes of the bacterium Escherichia coli in a higher level of detail than has been seen before. The results revealed two chemical modifications in proteins that form the ribosome that had not been observed in ribosomes previously. Additionally, a protein segment with a previously undescribed structure was identified close to the site where the ribosome reads the genetic instructions needed to make proteins. Further genetic analyses suggested these structures are in many related species, and may play important roles in how the ribosome works. Watson et al. were also able to see how paromomycin, an antibiotic used to treat parasitic infections, is positioned in the ribosome. The antibiotic interacts with a site near where the genetic code is read out, which might explain why certain changes to the antibiotic can interfere with its potency. Finally, the new ribosome structure reveals thousands of water molecules and metal ions that help keep the ribosome together as it produces proteins. This study shows the value of advances in cryo-EM technology and illustrates the importance of applying these techniques to other cell components. The results also reveal details of the ribosome useful for further research into this essential molecular machine.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / ultrastructure*
  • Cryoelectron Microscopy
  • Escherichia coli / ultrastructure*
  • RNA, Bacterial / ultrastructure*
  • RNA, Messenger / ultrastructure
  • RNA, Transfer / ultrastructure
  • Ribosomal Proteins / ultrastructure*
  • Ribosomes / ultrastructure*


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • RNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Ribosomal Proteins
  • RNA, Transfer