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Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center: Promoting the development of life and health

Oct 19, 2018 Special Report

In March 2017, Southern University of Science and Technology invited internationally renowned cryo-electron microscopist Wang Peiyi from the University of Leeds to return to China as the director of the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech).

He was invited to build a world-class cryo-electron microscopy center. On October 4th of the same year, the three distinguished scholars who invented cryo-electron microscopy received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their outstanding contributions in the field of cryo-microscopy. This coincidence reflects SUSTech’s forward-looking vision, and also shows the broad development prospects of the cryo-electron microscope.

At present, SUSTech has installed two 300 kV and one 120 kV cryo-electron microscopes, which are in the trial stage of operation, and scheduled to be in use by the end of this month. An additional four 300 kV cryo-electron microscopes and their associated instruments will be available later this year and early next year. At that point, SUSTech will be host to the largest and most advanced cryo-electron microscopy center in the world.

What is the cryo-electron microscope? In which fields will it be applied? How is the construction plan of the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center of SUSTech? To this end, the Newshub interviewed Director Wang Peiyi of SUSTech’s Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center.

What is Cryo-Electron Microscopy?

A cryo-electron microscope, as its name suggests, is a type of electron microscope. It works like an optical microscope through the interaction of light and sample. However, the major difference between traditional microscopes and electron microscopes is that the light source used in the cryo-electron microscope is not the visible light that people usually see, but electrons. Due to the shorter wavelength, the resolution of the images is lower than that or traditional microscopes. The resolution of cryo-electron microscopes solves this problem by allowing scientists and researchers to observe the fine structure of biological macromolecules such as protein molecules.

"Freezing" is the rapid freezing of biological samples containing water with liquid ethane to produce a very thin film of water (tens of nanometers). After the freezing is completed, the spatial structure of the “frozen” protein molecules can be observed under an electron microscope. Exploring the spatial structure of protein molecules plays an important role in biological fields. It helps to develop new drugs, treat incurable diseases, and promote the development of human life and health.

The Nobel Committee explained cryo-electron microscopy: “Scientific findings are often based on successful visualization of the microscopic world that is invisible to the naked eye. For a long time, existing microscopy techniques were not sufficient. Displaying the entire life cycle of the molecule leaves a lot of blanks on the biochemical map, and cryogenic cryo-electron microscopy brings biochemistry to a new era."

"As a tool for structural biology, the ultimate goal of cryo-electron microscopy is for people's health and drug development." Wang Peiyi talked about the applications of cryo-electron microscopy. "Outside the field of biology, the future of cryo-electron microscopy has applications in fields like materials science and SUSTech’s cryo-electron microscope fully considers the development needs of materials science. The SUSTech Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center is not limited to the life sciences. One of its advantages is that it also considers the comprehensive development of other disciplines."

Frozen electron microscope real shot

Cryo-electron experiment demonstration

Having the Right Technology at the Right Time

The leaders of SUSTech foresaw the enormous development potentials behind cryo-electron microscopy. In March 2017, Wang Peiyi was invited to visit SUSTech. He had in-depth conversations with both President Chen Shiyi and Vice President Tang Tao. Tang Tao also visited Wang Peiyi at his Leeds home during an official visit to the United Kingdom. Wang Peiyi ultimately decided to return to the motherland and realize his dream at SUSTech of establishing a world-class research center for cryo-electron microscopy.

"SUSTech is a place to realize its dreams," Wang Peiyi told us. The establishment of the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center at SUSTech has the strong support of the Shenzhen Municipal Government, and the hardware facilities are complete. With the supercomputing system within the top 500 in China, the configuration of the electron microscope can fully consider the technical direction of the single particle, microcrystalline electron diffraction, and tomography. It can meet some of the requirements of both life and material sciences. SUSTech has had a consistent plan for the establishment of the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center, from the beginning to its scientific design, including the distribution of the laboratory equipment and even the placement of the entrances. Wang Peiyi said that this people-oriented approach, combining science and art, is one of the advantages of SUSTech Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center.

A first-class platform attracts top talent. Some well-known experts in related fields in China are joining the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center. The Center's advisory team is also a well-known expert in the discipline, including 2017 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and MRC-LMB of Cambridge University, Richard Henderson. In addition, 2017 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Joachim Frank has visited the school twice this year, given lectures, and had cordial exchanges with university leaders, faculty members, and students.

According to Wang Peiyi, Joachim Frank's two visits to SUSTech were not merely for friendly exchanges with our teachers and students. He was looking for suitable partners from around the world. In the future, SUSTech and Joachim Frank will have the opportunity to cooperate more. Talking about the current development of the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center, Wang Peiyi admits that it is still in its infancy. Due to the rapid development of cryo-electron microscopy over the last five years, there are few globally recognized talents in this discipline. Wang Peiyi hopes to build a high-level scientific research talent team as soon as possible. With a high-level team, Wang Peiyi can live up to the support and expectations of Shenzhen and SUSTech.


Serve education and research, and do our best for health

Although there are many potential applications for cryo-electron microscopy in many fields, Wang Peiyi believes that the ultimate research goal lies in improving human health.

In order to solve the treatment of major difficult diseases, it is necessary to develop drugs. However, the development of drugs can be extremely long, and it takes ten years from research and development to marketing. The treatment of leukemia before and after the development of drugs has been going on for nearly 100 years, and cryo-electron microscopy technology can greatly shorten the development time of pharmaceutical medication.

"I watched a movie some time ago called "I Am Not A Drug God." To be honest, I left the cinema with a heavy heart." Wang Peiyi said. "Because our country does not yet have a targeted drug that really has its own intellectual property rights. I think we are responsible for drug-related structural biologists. The ultimate goal of cryo-electron microscopy is to solve pharmaceutical problems and discover and produce our own drugs with our own intellectual property. That way, we would not need to rely on other people's patents."

Cryo-electron microscopy can be used to study the pathogenic mechanism through cryo-freezing technology. It can also be used to promote the diagnosis and treatment of major diseases such as cancer.

Wang Peiyi also said that even the best instrument platform is also used for teaching and scientific research in universities. If the teachers and students of the Department of Biology or Materials Science and Engineering of SUSTech have the professional research need, the Cryo-Electron Microscope will be open to them. In addition, in order to give back to the strong support of the Shenzhen Municipal Government, the Refrigeration Electron Microscopy Research Center of South University of Science and Technology will also be open to some universities and units in need. It will contribute to the research and development of products for the society along with other universities and research institutions. “Of course, with such sophisticated instruments, we have a very rigorous training process.”

Relying on the support of Shenzhen and SUSTech, thanks to the joint efforts of experts and scholars inside and outside the school, we are full of confidence in the future development of the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center of SUSTech.

Text: Tong Xiaojin

Photo: Su Jiahui

Banner Image: Qiu Jun

Moving picture: Zheng Yijun

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