Covid-19 and cryo-EM


Today, the world is getting smaller – much smaller. New technologies don’t just connect and move us across vast distances, they allow us to peer deeper into the fabric of life itself.

Cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) is one such technology that has made multiple headlines over the past year due to its role in Covid-19 vaccine development. Using liquid nitrogen and liquid ethane, scientists can now flash-freeze new organic compounds, cells, viruses, and proteins to examine at near-atomic resolution using powerful electron beams. Each razor-thin sample offers an unprecedented view into the microscopic world through a window of ice.

In perhaps its biggest claim to fame, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) used cryo-EM to decode the protein structure inside the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus behind the Covid-19 pandemic. Not long after the virus began to spread, researchers in China were able to publish its genome sequence online, but the world would still need a better understanding of the virus’ characteristic spike protein in order to produce a vaccine.

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