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UCLA electron microscope boosts ease-of-use and efficiency with new software

CryoSPARC integration gives real-time feedback for imaging biological nanostructures at CNSI

The Electron Imaging Center for Nanosystems (EICN) at UCLA, equipped with the powerful FEI Titan Krios G1 transmission electron microscope, now offers CryoSPARC software with a user-friendly interface, simplifying operation for users from academia and private sectors.

Upgrades at a UCLA user facility have added important capabilities to the cryo-electron microscopy that is so vital to research revealing 3D biological structures at the smallest scales. The addition of CryoSPARC software makes the process of imaging frozen samples easier, more efficient and potentially faster.

The team at the Electron Imaging Center for Nanosystems (EICN) has implemented the software with the most powerful instrument in their current collection, the FEI Titan Krios G1 transmission electron microscope. As a Technology Center of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, the facility offers access to users based on campus, at other academic institutions and at private companies.

For the first time, CryoSPARC offers a graphic user interface to replace operation via command-line code. As part of making the Krios substantially simpler to use, the software puts numerous parameters a click away

“CryoSPARC has done a remarkable job making the single-particle analysis workflow more accessible,” said EICN managing director Matthew Mecklenburg. “It has a bunch of tools that are very valuable for understanding your data. And it keeps getting better and better.”

The software suite includes CryoSPARC Live, which provides real-time feedback on the quality of data being generated. 

With previous limitations in electron microscopy, teams had to wait for image data to be processed before they could find out whether there was a problem with the scan requiring a new sample to be prepared — with as much as a week’s lag after time on the microscope. EICN users can reclaim that lost time thanks to CryoSPARC Live’s same-day feedback. The software likewise speeds up the process of tweaking parameters.

“It’s beyond the reach of humans to work through all the data fast enough that they’ll know whether it’s good while they’re using the instrument,” Mecklenburg said. “CryoSPARC bridges that gap and allows us to know, in real-time, if the data is good.”

Taken together, CryoSPARC’s features enable investigators — and EICN itself — to get the most benefit from precious time working with the Krios. The experts associated with the Technology Center see this as a boon not only to individual research programs, but also potentially to the wider field of study examining the molecular arrangement seen in proteins, viruses and other biological nanostructures.

“It turns out life isn’t static, and we’re only beginning to understand how this plays out at the nanoscale,” said Jonathan Jih, a UCLA doctoral student in the laboratory led by EICN founding director Hong Zhou. “As recently as five years ago, we lacked the speed and processing to capture the dynamics of proteins and biomolecules in our data — you know, the part that actually explains how life works. Now all that is unlocked, and the amount of work that the Krios with CryoSPARC will be able to do in the future is unbelievable.”

For general information, project consultation and proof-of-concept, or training and assistance, contact the EICN helpdesk at eicnhelp@cnsi.ucla.edu.

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