Cryo-electron microscopy techniques and computational 3-D reconstruction of macromolecular assemblies are tightly linked tools in modern structural biology. This symbiosis has produced vast amounts of detailed information on the structure and function of biological macromolecules. Typically, one of two fundamentally different strategies is used depending on the specimens and their environment. A: 3-D reconstruction based on repetitive and structurally identical unit cells that allow for averaging, and B: tomographic 3-D reconstructions where tilt-series between approximately ± 60 and ± 70° at small angular increments are collected from highly complex and flexible structures that are beyond averaging procedures, at least during the first round of 3-D reconstruction. Strategies of group A are averaging-based procedures and collect large number of 2-D projections at different angles that are computationally aligned, averaged together, and back-projected in 3-D space to reach a most complete 3-D dataset with high resolution, today often down to atomic detail. Evidently, success relies on structurally repetitive particles and an aligning procedure that unambiguously determines the angular relationship of all 2-D projections with respect to each other. The alignment procedure of small particles may rely on their packing into a regular array such as a 2-D crystal, an icosahedral (viral) particle, or a helical assembly. Critically important for cryo-methods, each particle will only be exposed once to the electron beam, making these procedures optimal for highest-resolution studies where beam-induced damage is a significant concern. In contrast, tomographic 3-D reconstruction procedures (group B) do not rely on averaging, but collect an entire dataset from the very same structure of interest. Data acquisition requires collecting a large series of tilted projections at angular increments of 1-2° or less and a tilt range of ± 60° or more. Accordingly, tomographic data collection exposes its specimens to a large electron dose, which is particularly problematic for frozen-hydrated samples. Currently, cryo-electron tomography is a rapidly emerging technology, on one end driven by the newest developments of hardware such as super-stabile microscopy stages as well as the latest generation of direct electron detectors and cameras. On the other end, success also strongly depends on new software developments on all kinds of fronts such as tilt-series alignment and back-projection procedures that are all adapted to the very low-dose and therefore very noisy primary data. Here, we will review the status quo of cryo-electron microscopy and discuss the future of cellular cryo-electron tomography from data collection to data analysis, CTF-correction of tilt-series, post-tomographic sub-volume averaging, and 3-D particle classification. We will also discuss the pros and cons of plunge freezing of cellular specimens to vitrified sectioning procedures and their suitability for post-tomographic volume averaging despite multiple artifacts that may distort specimens to some degree.
Read the full paper here.