Structure of HIV-1 capsid assemblies by cryo-electron microscopy and iterative helical real-space reconstruction.
Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), combined with image processing, is an increasingly powerful tool for structure determination of macromolecular protein complexes and assemblies. In fact, single particle electron microscopy and two-dimensional (2D) electron crystallography have become relatively routine methodologies and a large number of structures have been solved using these methods. At the same time, image processing and three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction of helical objects has rapidly developed, especially, the iterative helical real-space reconstruction (IHRSR) method, which uses single particle analysis tools in conjunction with helical symmetry. Many biological entities function in filamentous or helical forms, including actin filaments, microtubules, amyloid fibers, tobacco mosaic viruses, and bacteria flagella, and, because a 3D density map of a helical entity can be attained from a single projection image, compared to the many images required for 3D reconstruction of a non-helical object, with the IHRSR method, structural analysis of such flexible and disordered helical assemblies is now attainable. In this video article, we provide detailed protocols for obtaining a 3D density map of a helical protein assembly (HIV-1 capsid is our example), including protocols for cryo-EM specimen preparation, low dose data collection by cryo-EM, indexing of helical diffraction patterns, and image processing and 3D reconstruction using IHRSR. Compared to other techniques, cryo-EM offers optimal specimen preservation under near native conditions. Samples are embedded in a thin layer of vitreous ice, by rapid freezing, and imaged in electron microscopes at liquid nitrogen temperature, under low dose conditions to minimize the radiation damage. Sample images are obtained under near native conditions at the expense of low signal and low contrast in the recorded micrographs. Fortunately, the process of helical reconstruction has largely been automated, with the exception of indexing the helical diffraction pattern. Here, we describe an approach to index helical structure and determine helical symmetries (helical parameters) from digitized micrographs, an essential step for 3D helical reconstruction. Briefly, we obtain an initial 3D density map by applying the IHRSR method. This initial map is then iteratively refined by introducing constraints for the alignment parameters of each segment, thus controlling their degrees of freedom. Further improvement is achieved by correcting for the contrast transfer function (CTF) of the electron microscope (amplitude and phase correction) and by optimizing the helical symmetry of the assembly.