Cryomicroscopy in situ: what is the smallest molecule that can be directly identified without labels in a cell?

Faraday Discuss. 2022 Aug 1. doi: 10.1039/d2fd00076h. Online ahead of print.


Electron cryomicroscopy (cryoEM) has made great strides in the last decade, such that the atomic structure of most biological macromolecules can, at least in principle, be determined. Major technological advances - in electron imaging hardware, data analysis software, and cryogenic specimen preparation technology - continue at pace and contribute to the exponential growth in the number of atomic structures determined by cryoEM. It is now conceivable that within the next decade we will have structures for hundreds of thousands of unique protein and nucleic acid molecular complexes. But the answers to many important questions in biology would become obvious if we could identify these structures precisely inside cells with quantifiable error. In the context of an abundance of known structures, it is appropriate to consider the current state of electron cryomicroscopy for frozen specimens prepared directly from cells, and try to answer to the question of the title, both now and in the foreseeable future.