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1.  FOLD-EM: automated fold recognition in medium- and low-resolution (4–15 Å) electron density maps 
Bioinformatics  2012;28(24):3265-3273.
Motivation: Owing to the size and complexity of large multi-component biological assemblies, the most tractable approach to determining their atomic structure is often to fit high-resolution radiographic or nuclear magnetic resonance structures of isolated components into lower resolution electron density maps of the larger assembly obtained using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). This hybrid approach to structure determination requires that an atomic resolution structure of each component, or a suitable homolog, is available. If neither is available, then the amount of structural information regarding that component is limited by the resolution of the cryo-EM map. However, even if a suitable homolog cannot be identified using sequence analysis, a search for structural homologs should still be performed because structural homology often persists throughout evolution even when sequence homology is undetectable, As macromolecules can often be described as a collection of independently folded domains, one way of searching for structural homologs would be to systematically fit representative domain structures from a protein domain database into the medium/low resolution cryo-EM map and return the best fits. Taken together, the best fitting non-overlapping structures would constitute a ‘mosaic’ backbone model of the assembly that could aid map interpretation and illuminate biological function.
Result: Using the computational principles of the Scale-Invariant Feature Transform (SIFT), we have developed FOLD-EM—a computational tool that can identify folded macromolecular domains in medium to low resolution (4–15 Å) electron density maps and return a model of the constituent polypeptides in a fully automated fashion. As a by-product, FOLD-EM can also do flexible multi-domain fitting that may provide insight into conformational changes that occur in macromolecular assemblies.
Availability and implementation: FOLD-EM is available at:, as a free open source software to the structural biology scientific community.
Contact: or
Supplementary information: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics online.
PMCID: PMC3519459  PMID: 23131460
2.  Draft Crystal Structure of the Vault Shell at 9-Å Resolution 
PLoS Biology  2007;5(11):e318.
Vaults are the largest known cytoplasmic ribonucleoprotein structures and may function in innate immunity. The vault shell self-assembles from 96 copies of major vault protein and encapsulates two other proteins and a small RNA. We crystallized rat liver vaults and several recombinant vaults, all among the largest non-icosahedral particles to have been crystallized. The best crystals thus far were formed from empty vaults built from a cysteine-tag construct of major vault protein (termed cpMVP vaults), diffracting to about 9-Å resolution. The asymmetric unit contains a half vault of molecular mass 4.65 MDa. X-ray phasing was initiated by molecular replacement, using density from cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Phases were improved by density modification, including concentric 24- and 48-fold rotational symmetry averaging. From this, the continuous cryo-EM electron density separated into domain-like blocks. A draft atomic model of cpMVP was fit to this improved density from 15 domain models. Three domains were adapted from a nuclear magnetic resonance substructure. Nine domain models originated in ab initio tertiary structure prediction. Three C-terminal domains were built by fitting poly-alanine to the electron density. Locations of loops in this model provide sites to test vault functions and to exploit vaults as nanocapsules.
Author Summary
Vaults are large barrel-shaped particles found in the cytoplasm in all mammalian cells, which may function in innate immunity. As naturally occurring nanoscale capsules, vaults may be useful objects to engineer as delivery vehicles. In this study, we propose an atomic structure for the thin outer shell of the vault. Using x-ray diffraction and computer modeling, we have inferred a draft atomic model for the major vault protein, which forms the shell-like enclosure of the vault. The shell is made up of 96 identical protein chains, each of 873 amino acid residues, folded into 14 domains. Each chain forms an elongated stave of half the vault, as well as the cap of the barrel-like shell. Our draft atomic model is essentially an atomic-level model for the entire 9.3-MDa vault shell, which offers a guide for protein engineering to test vault functions and to exploit vault particles as nanocapsules.
A draft atomic structure has been determined for the 9.3-MDa protein shell of the vault cytoplasmic particle, revealing stave-like polypeptides forming the barrel-like structure of the vault.
PMCID: PMC2229873  PMID: 18044992
3.  Structural analyses at pseudo atomic resolution of Chikungunya virus and antibodies show mechanisms of neutralization 
eLife  2013;2:e00435.
A 5.3 Å resolution, cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) map of Chikungunya virus-like particles (VLPs) has been interpreted using the previously published crystal structure of the Chikungunya E1-E2 glycoprotein heterodimer. The heterodimer structure was divided into domains to obtain a good fit to the cryoEM density. Differences in the T = 4 quasi-equivalent heterodimer components show their adaptation to different environments. The spikes on the icosahedral 3-fold axes and those in general positions are significantly different, possibly representing different phases during initial generation of fusogenic E1 trimers. CryoEM maps of neutralizing Fab fragments complexed with VLPs have been interpreted using the crystal structures of the Fab fragments and the VLP structure. Based on these analyses the CHK-152 antibody was shown to stabilize the viral surface, hindering the exposure of the fusion-loop, likely neutralizing infection by blocking fusion. The CHK-9, m10 and m242 antibodies surround the receptor-attachment site, probably inhibiting infection by blocking cell attachment.
eLife digest
The Chikungunya virus is carried by mosquitos and can cause a number of diseases in humans including encephalitis, which can be fatal in some cases, and severe arthritis. A recent mutation in the E1 protein of the virus has allowed it to efficiently reproduce in a different species of mosquitos, leading to a Chikungunya epidemic in Réunion Island in 2005 and the subsequent infection of millions of individuals in Africa and Asia. The virus also has the potential to spread to many areas of Europe and the Americas.
Chikungunya virus has a single-stranded RNA genome that codes for four non-structural proteins and five structural proteins. Based on this knowledge it has been possible to develop virus-like particles that can be used to immunise non-human primates against Chikungunya infection by inducing antibody production. However, the development of vaccines for Chikungunya in humans will require a deeper understanding of how these antibodies produced by the vaccine interact with the virus and more detailed information about the structures of the virus and antibodies.
Sun et al. have used two techniques – X-ray crystallography and electron cryo-microscopy – to determine the structure of Chikungunya virus-like particles, and to obtain new insights into the interactions of these particles with four related antibodies. Electron cryo-microscopy was used to figure out the structure of the particles at near atomic resolution, and X-ray crystallography was used to determine the atomic resolution structures of two of the four Fab antibodies that neutralize the Chikungunya virus. Electron cryo-microscopy was also used to probe the complex formed by the interactions between the virus-like particles and the antibodies.
Sun et al. were able to identify the likely viral receptor site that is blocked by three of the antibodies when they neutralize the virus; the fourth antibody is thought to act by immobilizing one of the domains of protein E2, thereby hiding the “fusion loop” that allows the virus to enter and infect human tissue. It is hoped that these findings will contribute to efforts to combat the spread of the Chikungunya virus worldwide.
PMCID: PMC3614025  PMID: 23577234
neutralizing antibody; Chikungunya virus; electron microscopy; pseudo-atomic; structure; envelope proteins; Viruses
4.  BCL::EM-Fit: Rigid body fitting of atomic structures into density maps using geometric hashing and real space refinement 
Journal of structural biology  2011;175(3):264-276.
Cryo-Electron Microscopy can visualize large macromolecular assemblies at resolutions often below 10 Å and recently as good as 3.8–4.5 Å. These density maps provide important insights into the biological functioning of molecular machineries such as viruses or the ribosome, in particular if atomic-resolution crystal structures or models of individual components of the assembly can be placed into the density map. The present work introduces a novel algorithm termed BCL::EM-Fit that accurately fits atomic-detail structural models into medium resolution density maps. In an initial step, a “geometric hashing” algorithm provides a short list of likely placements. In a follow up Monte Carlo/Metropolis refinement step, the initial placements are optimized by their cross correlation coefficient. The resolution of density maps for a reliable fit was determined to be 10 Å or better using tests with simulated density maps. The algorithm was applied to fitting of capsid proteins into an experimental cryoEM density map of human adenovirus at a resolution of 6.8 and 9.0 Å, and fitting of the GroEL protein at 5.4 Å. In the process, the handedness of the cryoEM density map was unambiguously identified. The BCL::EM-Fit algorithm offers an alternative to the established Fourier/Real space fitting programs. BCL::EM-Fit is free for academic use and available from a webserver or as downloadable binary file at
PMCID: PMC3150432  PMID: 21565271
Cryo-electron microscopy; cryoEM; geometric hashing; real space; Monte Carlo Metropolis; fitting; docking
5.  Ribosome structures to near-atomic resolution from thirty thousand cryo-EM particles 
eLife  2013;2:e00461.
Although electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) single-particle analysis has become an important tool for structural biology of large and flexible macro-molecular assemblies, the technique has not yet reached its full potential. Besides fundamental limits imposed by radiation damage, poor detectors and beam-induced sample movement have been shown to degrade attainable resolutions. A new generation of direct electron detectors may ameliorate both effects. Apart from exhibiting improved signal-to-noise performance, these cameras are also fast enough to follow particle movements during electron irradiation. Here, we assess the potentials of this technology for cryo-EM structure determination. Using a newly developed statistical movie processing approach to compensate for beam-induced movement, we show that ribosome reconstructions with unprecedented resolutions may be calculated from almost two orders of magnitude fewer particles than used previously. Therefore, this methodology may expand the scope of high-resolution cryo-EM to a broad range of biological specimens.
eLife digest
Determining the structure of proteins and other biomolecules at the atomic level is central to understanding many aspects of biology. X-ray crystallography is the best-known technique for structural biology but, as the name suggests, it works only with samples that can be crystallized. Electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) could, potentially, be used to determine the atomic structures of biomolecules that cannot be crystallized, but at present the resolution that can be achieved with this approach is sufficient only for imaging certain types of viruses.
In cryo-EM, a solution of the biomolecule of interest is frozen in a thin layer of ice, and this layer is imaged in an electron microscope. By combining images of many identical biomolecules in many different orientations, it is possible to work backwards and determine their 3D structure. However, in order to determine this structure at high resolution, it is necessary to make repeated measurements to reduce high levels of noise in the images.
Cryo-EM images are usually recorded on a photographic film or a CCD (charge-coupled device) camera. However, photographic film is unsuitable for high-throughput methods because it has to be handled manually, while the efficiency of CCD cameras is limited because the electrons have to be converted into visible light to be detected. Digital cameras that can detect electrons directly have become available recently, and these are more efficient than both film and CCD cameras. They are also much faster, which means that it is possible to record videos of the sample during the time (typically ∼1 s) it is being exposed to the electron beam. Processing these videos could then—in theory—compensate for any movements of the biomolecules that are induced by the electron beam. Along with radiation damage caused by the electrons, these beam-induced movements have been a major limitation on the resolution that can be achieved with cryo-EM.
Bai et al. demonstrate the potential of direct-electron detectors in cryo-EM by determining the structures of two ribosomes. Using a novel statistical algorithm to accurately follow the movements of the ribosomes during the time they are exposed to the electron beam, they are able to compensate for these movements, and this makes it possible to determine the structures of the ribosomes with near-atomic precision. Moreover, the resolution they achieve with just ∼30,000 ribosomes is better than that previously achieved with more than a million ribosomes, allowing small details inside the ribosome – such as ß-strands and bulky amino-acid side chains – to be resolved with cryo-EM for the first time. The work of Bai et al. could, therefore, allow researchers to use cryo-EM to determine the structure of many more biomolecules with atomic precision.
PMCID: PMC3576727  PMID: 23427024
Electron Microscopy; Direct electron detectors; Image processing; T. thermophilus; ribosome; Bayesian; S. cerevisiae
Single-particle cryo electron microscopy (cryoEM) is a technique for determining three-dimensional (3D) structures from projection images of molecular complexes preserved in their “native,” noncrystalline state. Recently, atomic or near-atomic resolution structures of several viruses and protein assemblies have been determined by single-particle cryoEM, allowing ab initio atomic model building by following the amino acid side chains or nucleic acid bases identifiable in their cryoEM density maps. In particular, these cryoEM structures have revealed extended arms contributing to molecular interactions that are otherwise not resolved by the conventional structural method of X-ray crystallography at similar resolutions. High-resolution cryoEM requires careful consideration of a number of factors, including proper sample preparation to ensure structural homogeneity, optimal configuration of electron imaging conditions to record high-resolution cryoEM images, accurate determination of image parameters to correct image distortions, efficient refinement and computation to reconstruct a 3D density map, and finally appropriate choice of modeling tools to construct atomic models for functional interpretation. This progress illustrates the power of cryoEM and ushers it into the arsenal of structural biology, alongside conventional techniques of X-ray crystallography and NMR, as a major tool (and sometimes the preferred one) for the studies of molecular interactions in supramolecular assemblies or machines.
PMCID: PMC3698602  PMID: 21501817
7.  A fast mathematical programming procedure for simultaneous fitting of assembly components into cryoEM density maps 
Bioinformatics  2010;26(12):i261-i268.
Motivation: Single-particle cryo electron microscopy (cryoEM) typically produces density maps of macromolecular assemblies at intermediate to low resolution (∼5–30 Å). By fitting high-resolution structures of assembly components into these maps, pseudo-atomic models can be obtained. Optimizing the quality-of-fit of all components simultaneously is challenging due to the large search space that makes the exhaustive search over all possible component configurations computationally unfeasible.
Results: We developed an efficient mathematical programming algorithm that simultaneously fits all component structures into an assembly density map. The fitting is formulated as a point set matching problem involving several point sets that represent component and assembly densities at a reduced complexity level. In contrast to other point matching algorithms, our algorithm is able to match multiple point sets simultaneously and not only based on their geometrical equivalence, but also based on the similarity of the density in the immediate point neighborhood. In addition, we present an efficient refinement method based on the Iterative Closest Point registration algorithm. The integer quadratic programming method generates an assembly configuration in a few seconds. This efficiency allows the generation of an ensemble of candidate solutions that can be assessed by an independent scoring function. We benchmarked the method using simulated density maps of 11 protein assemblies at 20 Å, and an experimental cryoEM map at 23.5 Å resolution. Our method was able to generate assembly structures with root-mean-square errors <6.5 Å, which have been further reduced to <1.8 Å by the local refinement procedure.
Availability: The program is available upon request as a Matlab code package.
Contact: and
Supplementary information: Supplementary data are available at Bioinformatics Online.
PMCID: PMC2881386  PMID: 20529915
8.  Improved protein surface comparison and application to low-resolution protein structure data 
BMC Bioinformatics  2010;11(Suppl 11):S2.
Recent advancements of experimental techniques for determining protein tertiary structures raise significant challenges for protein bioinformatics. With the number of known structures of unknown function expanding at a rapid pace, an urgent task is to provide reliable clues to their biological function on a large scale. Conventional approaches for structure comparison are not suitable for a real-time database search due to their slow speed. Moreover, a new challenge has arisen from recent techniques such as electron microscopy (EM), which provide low-resolution structure data. Previously, we have introduced a method for protein surface shape representation using the 3D Zernike descriptors (3DZDs). The 3DZD enables fast structure database searches, taking advantage of its rotation invariance and compact representation. The search results of protein surface represented with the 3DZD has showngood agreement with the existing structure classifications, but some discrepancies were also observed.
The three new surface representations of backbone atoms, originally devised all-atom-surface representation, and the combination of all-atom surface with the backbone representation are examined. All representations are encoded with the 3DZD. Also, we have investigated the applicability of the 3DZD for searching protein EM density maps of varying resolutions. The surface representations are evaluated on structure retrieval using two existing classifications, SCOP and the CE-based classification.
Overall, the 3DZDs representing backbone atoms show better retrieval performance than the original all-atom surface representation. The performance further improved when the two representations are combined. Moreover, we observed that the 3DZD is also powerful in comparing low-resolution structures obtained by electron microscopy.
PMCID: PMC3024873  PMID: 21172052
9.  Ab Initio Modeling of the Herpesvirus VP26 Core Domain Assessed by CryoEM Density 
PLoS Computational Biology  2006;2(10):e146.
Efforts in structural biology have targeted the systematic determination of all protein structures through experimental determination or modeling. In recent years, 3-D electron cryomicroscopy (cryoEM) has assumed an increasingly important role in determining the structures of these large macromolecular assemblies to intermediate resolutions (6–10 Å). While these structures provide a snapshot of the assembly and its components in well-defined functional states, the resolution limits the ability to build accurate structural models. In contrast, sequence-based modeling techniques are capable of producing relatively robust structural models for isolated proteins or domains. In this work, we developed and applied a hybrid modeling approach, utilizing cryoEM density and ab initio modeling to produce a structural model for the core domain of a herpesvirus structural protein, VP26. Specifically, this method, first tested on simulated data, utilizes the cryoEM density map as a geometrical constraint in identifying the most native-like models from a gallery of models generated by ab initio modeling. The resulting model for the core domain of VP26, based on the 8.5-Å resolution herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) capsid cryoEM structure and mutational data, exhibited a novel fold. Additionally, the core domain of VP26 appeared to have a complementary interface to the known upper-domain structure of VP5, its cognate binding partner. While this new model provides for a better understanding of the assembly and interactions of VP26 in HSV-1, the approach itself may have broader applications in modeling the components of large macromolecular assemblies.
Efforts in structural genomics have targeted the systematic determination of all protein structures primarily using X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance. These initiatives have typically focused on domains, single-protein and in some cases small complexes, and as such macromolecular machines are relatively underrepresented. However, in recent years, electron cryomicroscopy (cryoEM) has assumed an increasingly important role in determining the structure of large macromolecular machines in their biologically active states to intermediate resolutions (5–10 Å). Concurrently, modeling techniques, such as comparative and ab initio modeling, have played an increasingly important role in structure determination of small proteins not amenable to other structural techniques. In this work, Baker and colleagues have leveraged ab initio modeling and cryoEM to assess and identify structural models for the macromolecular components within a large complex. Specifically, the cryoEM density can be used to select the most native-like models from a large gallery of potential models. Applied to the smallest herpesvirus capsid protein, VP26 (12 kDa), it was possible to determine its core domain structure (residues 42–105), which helped to elucidate interactions among the structural protein in the virion. Beyond VP26, these techniques potentially provide a new pathway for accurate structure determination of proteins in their biological and functional states.
PMCID: PMC1626159  PMID: 17069457
10.  De novo modeling of the F420-reducing [NiFe]-hydrogenase from a methanogenic archaeon by cryo-electron microscopy 
eLife  2013;2:e00218.
Methanogenic archaea use a [NiFe]-hydrogenase, Frh, for oxidation/reduction of F420, an important hydride carrier in the methanogenesis pathway from H2 and CO2. Frh accounts for about 1% of the cytoplasmic protein and forms a huge complex consisting of FrhABG heterotrimers with each a [NiFe] center, four Fe-S clusters and an FAD. Here, we report the structure determined by near-atomic resolution cryo-EM of Frh with and without bound substrate F420. The polypeptide chains of FrhB, for which there was no homolog, was traced de novo from the EM map. The 1.2-MDa complex contains 12 copies of the heterotrimer, which unexpectedly form a spherical protein shell with a hollow core. The cryo-EM map reveals strong electron density of the chains of metal clusters running parallel to the protein shell, and the F420-binding site is located at the end of the chain near the outside of the spherical structure.
eLife digest
Many microbes grow by producing methane gas from carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas, and enzymes known as hydrogenases play important roles in this metabolic process. The production of methane in these microbes depends on a nickel–iron hydrogenase called Frh adding electrons to a coenzyme called F420. This hydrogenase cleaves a hydrogen molecule into two electrons, which are transferred to the F420 coenzyme, and two protons. The reduced form of F420 is then used for several reactions in the methane production process. This process, which is known as methanogenesis, provides the microbes with energy.
Nickel–iron hydrogenases can be divided into five different groups, but researchers have been able to determine the detailed structures of the enzymes in just one of these groups. All nickel–iron hydrogenases contain at least two subunits: a large subunit with a catalytic center composed of both nickel and iron ions and a small subunit that contains three iron–sulfur clusters. Frh—which is short for F420-reducing nickel–iron hydrogenase—is known to have a third subunit comprising an extra iron–sulfur cluster and a coenzyme called FAD that allows it to interact with the F420 coenzyme. However, until now, little was known about the detailed structure of the Frh enzyme.
Mills et al. have used electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) to determine the structure of Frh when it is on its own, and also when it is bound to F420. This technique involves freezing a solution of the enzyme in a thin layer of ice and recording an image of this layer in an electron microscope. By combining a large number of images, each of which contains many identical enzymes in different orientations, it is possible to determine the 3-dimensional structure of the enzyme.
Mills et al. found that Frh forms a very large tetrahedral complex that contains six Frh dimers. And by comparing the structure with and without F420, they identify a pocket near the FAD coenzyme that the F420 coenzyme binds to. They also identify a fold in the third subunit that allows proteins to bind both FAD and F420. The work demonstrates the potential of cryo-EM to elucidate structures that cannot be determined by other approaches.
PMCID: PMC3591093  PMID: 23483797
Methanothermobacter marburgensis; cryo-electron microscopy; methanogenesis; hydrogenase; Other
11.  Nhs: Network-based Hierarchical Segmentation for Cryo-EM Density Maps 
Biopolymers  2012;97(9):732-741.
Electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) experiments yield low-resolution (3–30Å) 3D-density maps of macromolecules. These density maps are segmented to identify structurally distinct proteins, protein domains, and sub-units. Such partitioning aids the inference of protein motions and guides fitting of high-resolution atomistic structures. Cryo-EM density map segmentation has traditionally required tedious and subjective manual partitioning or semi-supervised computational methods, while validation of resulting segmentations has remained an open problem in this field. Our network-based bias-free segmentation method for cryo-EM density map segmentation, Nhs (Network-based hierarchical segmentation), provides the user with a multi-scale partitioning, reflecting local and global clustering, while requiring no user input. This approach models each map as a graph, where map voxels constitute nodes and edges connect neighboring voxels. Nhs initiates Markov diffusion (or random walk) on the weighted graph. As Markov probabilities homogenize through diffusion, an intrinsic segmentation emerges. We validate the segmentations with ground-truth maps based on atomistic models. When implemented on density maps in the 2010 Cryo-EM Modeling Challenge, Nhs efficiently and objectively partitions macromolecules into structurally and functionally relevant sub-regions at multiple scales.
PMCID: PMC3483038  PMID: 22696408
12.  Structural Analysis of Respiratory Syncytial Virus Reveals the Position of M2-1 between the Matrix Protein and the Ribonucleoprotein Complex 
Journal of Virology  2014;88(13):7602-7617.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a member of the Paramyxoviridae family of nonsegmented, negative-sense, single-stranded RNA genome viruses, is a leading cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants, young children, and the elderly or immunocompromised. There are many open questions regarding the processes that regulate human RSV (hRSV) assembly and budding. Here, using cryo-electron tomography, we identified virus particles that were spherical, filamentous, and asymmetric in structure, all within the same virus preparation. The three particle morphologies maintained a similar organization of the surface glycoproteins, matrix protein (M), M2-1, and the ribonucleoprotein (RNP). RNP filaments were traced in three dimensions (3D), and their total length was calculated. The measurements revealed the inclusion of multiple full-length genome copies per particle. RNP was associated with the membrane whenever the M layer was present. The amount of M coverage ranged from 24% to 86% in the different morphologies. Using fluorescence light microscopy (fLM), direct stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (dSTORM), and a proximity ligation assay (PLA), we provide evidence illustrating that M2-1 is located between RNP and M in isolated viral particles. In addition, regular spacing of the M2-1 densities was resolved when hRSV viruses were imaged using Zernike phase contrast (ZPC) cryo-electron tomography. Our studies provide a more complete characterization of the hRSV virion structure and substantiation that M and M2-1 regulate virus organization.
IMPORTANCE hRSV is a leading cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants and young children as well as elderly or immunocompromised individuals. We used cryo-electron tomography and Zernike phase contrast cryo-electron tomography to visualize populations of purified hRSV in 3D. We observed the three distinct morphologies, spherical, filamentous, and asymmetric, which maintained comparable organizational profiles. Depending on the virus morphology examined, the amount of M ranged from 24% to 86%. We complemented the cryo-imaging studies with fluorescence microscopy, dSTORM, and a proximity ligation assay to provide additional evidence that M2-1 is incorporated into viral particles and is positioned between M and RNP. The results highlight the impact of M and M2-1 on the regulation of hRSV organization.
PMCID: PMC4054448  PMID: 24760890
13.  Atomic model of the F420-reducing [NiFe] hydrogenase by electron cryo-microscopy using a direct electron detector 
eLife  2014;3:e01963.
The introduction of direct electron detectors with higher detective quantum efficiency and fast read-out marks the beginning of a new era in electron cryo-microscopy. Using the FEI Falcon II direct electron detector in video mode, we have reconstructed a map at 3.36 Å resolution of the 1.2 MDa F420-reducing hydrogenase (Frh) from methanogenic archaea from only 320,000 asymmetric units. Videos frames were aligned by a combination of image and particle alignment procedures to overcome the effects of beam-induced motion. The reconstructed density map shows all secondary structure as well as clear side chain densities for most residues. The full coordination of all cofactors in the electron transfer chain (a [NiFe] center, four [4Fe4S] clusters and an FAD) is clearly visible along with a well-defined substrate access channel. From the rigidity of the complex we conclude that catalysis is diffusion-limited and does not depend on protein flexibility or conformational changes.
eLife digest
Many microbes rely on enzymes known as hydrogenases to catalyse the metabolic reactions that generate energy. These enzymes cleave hydrogen molecules to release electrons that go on to participate in further reactions. In order to fully understand how hydrogenases and other enzymes work it is necessary to work out their structure at the atomic level.
Last year a technique known as electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) was used to show that Frh—a hydrogenase that is crucial for many different steps in the metabolic process of microbes that produce methane—had a tetrahedral structure. Cryo-EM involves freezing the molecule of interest in a layer of ice to preserve its structure as it is imaged with an electron beam. Unfortunately, the signal-to-noise ratio in each image is low, so researchers must combine many separate images in order to determine the structure of the molecule.
The use of a new type of electron detector can improve the performance of an electron cryo-microscope in several ways. Higher frame rates can be used, which makes it possible to correct for movement of the molecule caused by the electron beam. The new electron detectors are also more efficient, so samples can be exposed to lower doses of electrons, reducing damage to the sample.
Using the new direct electron detectors, Allegretti et al. were able to work out the structure of Frh in greater detail than before. The results confirm that the previously reported structure is correct. Furthermore, several new structural features were seen for the first time, including a previously unseen ion located between two protein subunits. Allegretti et al. also revealed that the structure of Frh is highly rigid, and so the process by which it catalyses reactions involving its substrate, the coenzyme F420, does not involve changes in its shape. Instead, the reaction rate depends on the rate at which F420 diffuses to the correct position in the enzyme, where the reaction occurs very rapidly.
PMCID: PMC3930138  PMID: 24569482
cryo-electron microscopy; [NiFe] hydrogenase; methanogenesis; Methanothermobacter marburgensis; other
14.  The Common Structural Architecture of Shigella flexneri and Salmonella typhimurium Type Three Secretion Needles 
PLoS Pathogens  2013;9(3):e1003245.
The Type Three Secretion System (T3SS), or injectisome, is a macromolecular infection machinery present in many pathogenic Gram-negative bacteria. It consists of a basal body, anchored in both bacterial membranes, and a hollow needle through which effector proteins are delivered into the target host cell. Two different architectures of the T3SS needle have been previously proposed. First, an atomic model of the Salmonella typhimurium needle was generated from solid-state NMR data. The needle subunit protein, PrgI, comprises a rigid-extended N-terminal segment and a helix-loop-helix motif with the N-terminus located on the outside face of the needle. Second, a model of the Shigella flexneri needle was generated from a high-resolution 7.7-Å cryo-electron microscopy density map. The subunit protein, MxiH, contains an N-terminal α-helix, a loop, another α-helix, a 14-residue-long β-hairpin (Q51–Q64) and a C-terminal α-helix, with the N-terminus facing inward to the lumen of the needle. In the current study, we carried out solid-state NMR measurements of wild-type Shigella flexneri needles polymerized in vitro and identified the following secondary structure elements for MxiH: a rigid-extended N-terminal segment (S2-T11), an α-helix (L12-A38), a loop (E39-P44) and a C-terminal α-helix (Q45-R83). Using immunogold labeling in vitro and in vivo on functional needles, we located the N-terminus of MxiH subunits on the exterior of the assembly, consistent with evolutionary sequence conservation patterns and mutagenesis data. We generated a homology model of Shigella flexneri needles compatible with both experimental data: the MxiH solid-state NMR chemical shifts and the state-of-the-art cryoEM density map. These results corroborate the solid-state NMR structure previously solved for Salmonella typhimurium PrgI needles and establish that Shigella flexneri and Salmonella typhimurium subunit proteins adopt a conserved structure and orientation in their assembled state. Our study reveals a common structural architecture of T3SS needles, essential to understand T3SS-mediated infection and develop treatments.
Author Summary
Gram-negative bacteria use a molecular machinery called the Type Three Secretion System (T3SS) to deliver toxic proteins to the host cell. Our research group has recently solved the structure of the extracellular T3SS needle of Salmonella typhimurium. Employing solid-state NMR, we could determine local structure parameters such as dihedral angles and inter-nuclear proximities for this supramolecular assembly. Concurrently, a high-resolution cryo-electron microscopy density map of the T3SS needle of Shigella flexneri was obtained by Fujii et al. Modeling of the Shigella needle subunit protein to fit the EM density produced a model incompatible with the atomic model of the Salmonella needle in terms of secondary structure and subunit orientation. Here, we determined directly the secondary structure of the Shigella needle subunit using solid-state NMR, and its orientation using in vitro and in vivo immunogold labeling in functional needles. We found that Shigella subunits adopt the same secondary structure and orientation as in the atomic model of Salmonella, and we generated a homology model of the Shigella needle consistent with the EM density. Knowing the common T3SS needle architecture is essential for understanding the secretion mechanism and interactions of the needle with other components of the T3SS, and to develop therapeutics.
PMCID: PMC3605151  PMID: 23555258
15.  Estimating loop length from CryoEM images at medium resolutions 
BMC Structural Biology  2013;13(Suppl 1):S5.
De novo protein modeling approaches utilize 3-dimensional (3D) images derived from electron cryomicroscopy (CryoEM) experiments. The skeleton connecting two secondary structures such as α-helices represent the loop in the 3D image. The accuracy of the skeleton and of the detected secondary structures are critical in De novo modeling. It is important to measure the length along the skeleton accurately since the length can be used as a constraint in modeling the protein.
We have developed a novel computational geometric approach to derive a simplified curve in order to estimate the loop length along the skeleton. The method was tested using fifty simulated density images of helix-loop-helix segments of atomic structures and eighteen experimentally derived density data from Electron Microscopy Data Bank (EMDB). The test using simulated density maps shows that it is possible to estimate within 0.5Å of the expected length for 48 of the 50 cases. The experiments, involving eighteen experimentally derived CryoEM images, show that twelve cases have error within 2Å.
The tests using both simulated and experimentally derived images show that it is possible for our proposed method to estimate the loop length along the skeleton if the secondary structure elements, such as α-helices, can be detected accurately, and there is a continuous skeleton linking the α-helices.
PMCID: PMC3953143  PMID: 24565041
16.  Consensus among flexible fitting approaches improves the interpretation of cryo-EM data 
Journal of Structural Biology  2011;177(2):561-570.
Cryo-elecron microscopy (Cryo-EM) can provide important structural information of large macromolecular assemblies in different conformational states. Recent years have seen an increase in structures deposited in the Protein Data Bank (PDB) by fitting a high-resolution structure into its low-resolution cryo-EM map. A commonly used protocol for accommodating the conformational changes between the X-ray structure and the cryo-EM map is rigid body fitting of individual domains. With the emergence of different flexible fitting approaches, there is a need to compare and revise these different protocols for the fitting. We have applied three diverse automated flexible fitting approaches on a protein dataset for which rigid domain fitting (RDF) models have been deposited in the PDB. In general, a consensus is observed in the conformations, which indicates a convergence from these theoretically different approaches to the most probable solution corresponding to the cryo-EM map. However, the result shows that the convergence might not be observed for proteins with complex conformational changes or with missing densities in cryo-EM map. In contrast, RDF structures deposited in the PDB can represent conformations that not only differ from the consensus obtained by flexible fitting but also from X-ray crystallography. Thus, this study emphasizes that a “consensus” achieved by the use of several automated flexible fitting approaches can provide a higher level of confidence in the modeled configurations. Following this protocol not only increases the confidence level of fitting, but also highlights protein regions with uncertain fitting. Hence, this protocol can lead to better interpretation of cryo-EM data.
PMCID: PMC3288178  PMID: 22019767
Flexible fitting; Rigid fitting; X-ray structure; Electron microscopy; Protein data bank
17.  Conformational Changes during Pore Formation by the Perforin-Related Protein Pleurotolysin 
PLoS Biology  2015;13(2):e1002049.
Membrane attack complex/perforin-like (MACPF) proteins comprise the largest superfamily of pore-forming proteins, playing crucial roles in immunity and pathogenesis. Soluble monomers assemble into large transmembrane pores via conformational transitions that remain to be structurally and mechanistically characterised. Here we present an 11 Å resolution cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structure of the two-part, fungal toxin Pleurotolysin (Ply), together with crystal structures of both components (the lipid binding PlyA protein and the pore-forming MACPF component PlyB). These data reveal a 13-fold pore 80 Å in diameter and 100 Å in height, with each subunit comprised of a PlyB molecule atop a membrane bound dimer of PlyA. The resolution of the EM map, together with biophysical and computational experiments, allowed confident assignment of subdomains in a MACPF pore assembly. The major conformational changes in PlyB are a ∼70° opening of the bent and distorted central β-sheet of the MACPF domain, accompanied by extrusion and refolding of two α-helical regions into transmembrane β-hairpins (TMH1 and TMH2). We determined the structures of three different disulphide bond-trapped prepore intermediates. Analysis of these data by molecular modelling and flexible fitting allows us to generate a potential trajectory of β-sheet unbending. The results suggest that MACPF conformational change is triggered through disruption of the interface between a conserved helix-turn-helix motif and the top of TMH2. Following their release we propose that the transmembrane regions assemble into β-hairpins via top down zippering of backbone hydrogen bonds to form the membrane-inserted β-barrel. The intermediate structures of the MACPF domain during refolding into the β-barrel pore establish a structural paradigm for the transition from soluble monomer to pore, which may be conserved across the whole superfamily. The TMH2 region is critical for the release of both TMH clusters, suggesting why this region is targeted by endogenous inhibitors of MACPF function.
Author Summary
Animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria all use pore-forming proteins of the membrane attack complex-perforin (MACPF) family as lethal, cell-killing weapons. These proteins are able to insert into the plasma membranes of target cells, creating large pores that short circuit the natural separation between the intracellular and extracellular milieu, with catastrophic results. However, the pore-forming proteins must undergo a substantial transformation from soluble precursors to a large barrel-shaped transmembrane complex as they punch their way into cells. Using a combination of X-ray crystallography and cryo electron microscopy, we have visualized, for the first time, the mechanism of action of one of these pore-forming proteins—pleurotolysin, a MACPF protein from the edible oyster mushroom. This enabled us to propose a model of the pleurotolysin pore by fitting the crystallographic structures of the pore proteins into a three-dimensional map of the pore obtained by cryo electron microscopy. We then designed a set of double mutants that allowed us to chemically trap intermediate states along the trajectory of the pore formation process, and to determine their structures too. By combining these data we proposed a detailed molecular mechanism for pore formation. The pleurotolysin first assembles into rings of 13 subunits, each of which then opens up by about 70° during pore formation. This process is accompanied by refolding and extrusion of two compact regions from each subunit into long hairpins that then zipper together to form an 80-Å wide barrel-shaped channel through the membrane.
A combination of structural methods reveals the complex process by which the perforin-like fungal toxin Pleurotolysin rearranges its structure to form a pore that punches a hole in target cell membranes.
PMCID: PMC4318580  PMID: 25654333
18.  Model of the trimeric fiber and its interactions with the pentameric penton base of human adenovirus by cryo-electron microscopy 
Journal of Molecular Biology  2010;406(5):764-774.
Adenovirus invades host cells by first binding to host receptors through a trimeric fiber, which contains three domains: a receptor-binding knob domain, a long flexible shaft domain and a penton base-attachment tail domain. Although the structure of the knob domain associated with a portion of the shaft has been solved by X-ray crystallography, the in situ structure of the fiber in the virion is not known; thus it remains a mystery how the trimeric fiber attaches to its underlying pentameric penton base. By high-resolution cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM), we have determined the structure of the human adenovirus type 5 (Ad5) to 3.6Å resolution and have reported the full atomic models for its capsid proteins, but not for the fiber whose density cannot be directly interpreted due to symmetry mismatch with the penton base. Here we report the determination of the Ad5 fiber structure and its mode of attachment to the pentameric penton base by using an integrative approach of multi-resolution filtering, homology modeling, computational simulation of mismatched symmetries and fitting of atomic models into cryoEM density maps. Our structure reveals that the interactions between the trimeric fiber and the pentameric penton base are mediated by a hydrophobic ring on the top surface of the penton base and three flexible tails inserted into three of the five available grooves formed by neighboring subunits of penton base. These interaction sites provide the molecular basis for the symmetry mismatch and can be targeted for optimizing adenovirus for gene therapy applications.
PMCID: PMC3392045  PMID: 21146538
adenovirus; fiber; penton base; symmetry mismatch; cryoEM
Electron cryo-microscopy (cryoEM) is a rapidly maturing methodology in structural biology, which now enables the determination of 3D structures of molecules, macromolecular complexes and cellular components at resolutions as high as 3.5Å, bridging the gap between light microscopy and X-ray crystallography/NMR. In recent years structures of many complex molecular machines have been visualized using this method. Single particle reconstruction, the most widely used technique in cryoEM, has recently demonstrated the capability of producing structures at resolutions approaching those of X-ray crystallography, with over a dozen structures at better than 5 Å resolution published to date . This method represents a significant new source of experimental data for molecular modeling and simulation studies. CryoEM derived maps and models are archived through joint deposition services to the EM Data Bank (EMDB) and Protein Data Bank (PDB), respectively. CryoEM maps are now being routinely produced over the 3 - 30 Å resolution range, and a number of computational groups are developing software for building coordinate models based on this data and developing validation techniques to better assess map and model accuracy. In this workshop we will present the results of the first cryoEM modeling challenge, in which computational groups were asked to apply their tools to a selected set of published cryoEM structures. We will also compare the results of the various applied methods, and discuss the current state of the art and how we can most productively move forward.
PMCID: PMC3617577  PMID: 21121065
20.  Multiple Subunit Fitting into a Low-Resolution Density Map of a Macromolecular Complex Using a Gaussian Mixture Model 
Biophysical Journal  2008;95(10):4643-4658.
Recently, electron microscopy measurement of single particles has enabled us to reconstruct a low-resolution 3D density map of large biomolecular complexes. If structures of the complex subunits can be solved by x-ray crystallography at atomic resolution, fitting these models into the 3D density map can generate an atomic resolution model of the entire large complex. The fitting of multiple subunits, however, generally requires large computational costs; therefore, development of an efficient algorithm is required. We developed a fast fitting program, “gmfit”, which employs a Gaussian mixture model (GMM) to represent approximated shapes of the 3D density map and the atomic models. A GMM is a distribution function composed by adding together several 3D Gaussian density functions. Because our model analytically provides an integral of a product of two distribution functions, it enables us to quickly calculate the fitness of the density map and the atomic models. Using the integral, two types of potential energy function are introduced: the attraction potential energy between a 3D density map and each subunit, and the repulsion potential energy between subunits. The restraint energy for symmetry is also employed to build symmetrical origomeric complexes. To find the optimal configuration of subunits, we randomly generated initial configurations of subunit models, and performed a steepest-descent method using forces and torques of the three potential energies. Comparison between an original density map and its GMM showed that the required number of Gaussian distribution functions for a given accuracy depended on both resolution and molecular size. We then performed test fitting calculations for simulated low-resolution density maps of atomic models of homodimer, trimer, and hexamer, using different search parameters. The results indicated that our method was able to rebuild atomic models of a complex even for maps of 30 Å resolution if sufficient numbers (eight or more) of Gaussian distribution functions were employed for each subunit, and the symmetric restraints were assigned for complexes with more than three subunits. As a more realistic test, we tried to build an atomic model of the GroEL/ES complex by fitting 21-subunit atomic models into the 3D density map obtained by cryoelectron microscopy using the C7 symmetric restraints. A model with low root mean-square deviations (14.7 Å) was obtained as the lowest-energy model, showing that our fitting method was reasonably accurate. Inclusion of other restraints from biological and biochemical experiments could further enhance the accuracy.
PMCID: PMC2576401  PMID: 18708469
21.  Reconstructing virus structures from nanometer to near-atomic resolutions with cryo-electron microscopy and tomography 
The past few decades have seen tremendous advances in single particle electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM). The field has matured to the point that near-atomic resolution density maps can be generated for icosahedral viruses without the need for crystallization. In parallel, substantial progress has been made in determining the structures of non-icosahedrally arranged proteins in viruses by employing either single particle cryo-EM or cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET). Implicit in this course has been the availability of a new generation of electron cryo-microscopes and the development of the computational tools that are essential for generating these maps and models. This methodology has enabled structural biologists to analyze structures in increasing detail for virus particles that are in different morphogenetic and biochemical states. Furthermore, electron imaging of frozen, hydrated cells, in the process of being infected by viruses, has also opened up a new avenue for studying virus structures “in situ”. Here we present the common techniques used to acquire and process cryo-EM and cryo-ET data and discuss their implications for structural virology both now and in the future.
PMCID: PMC3954858  PMID: 22297510
Microscopy; Cryo-EM; Cryo-ET; Subnanometer Resolution; Near-Atomic Resolution; Modeling; Virus Structure
22.  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 microscopy1 and two-dimensional (2D) electron crystallography2 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) method3, which uses single particle analysis tools in conjunction with helical symmetry. Many biological entities function in filamentous or helical forms, including actin filaments4, microtubules5, amyloid fibers6, tobacco mosaic viruses7, and bacteria flagella8, 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 capsid9 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.
PMCID: PMC3211131  PMID: 21860371
23.  Computational methods for constructing protein structure models from 3D electron microscopy maps 
Journal of structural biology  2013;184(1):93-102.
Protein structure determination by cryo-electron microscopy (EM) has made significant progress in the past decades. Resolutions of EM maps have been improving as evidenced by recently reported structures that are solved at high resolutions close to 3 Å. Computational methods play a key role in interpreting EM data. Among many computational procedures applied to an EM map to obtain protein structure information, in this article we focus on reviewing computational methods that model protein three-dimensional (3D) structures from a 3D EM density map that is constructed from two-dimensional (2D) maps. The computational methods we discuss range from de novo methods, which identify structural elements in an EM map, to structure fitting methods, where known high resolution structures are fit into a low-resolution EM map. A list of available computational tools is also provided.
PMCID: PMC3795986  PMID: 23796504
electron microscopy; structure fitting; macromolecular structure modeling; electron density map; computational algorithm
24.  New Insights into Rotavirus Entry Machinery: Stabilization of Rotavirus Spike Conformation Is Independent of Trypsin Cleavage 
PLoS Pathogens  2014;10(5):e1004157.
The infectivity of rotavirus, the main causative agent of childhood diarrhea, is dependent on activation of the extracellular viral particles by trypsin-like proteases in the host intestinal lumen. This step entails proteolytic cleavage of the VP4 spike protein into its mature products, VP8* and VP5*. Previous cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) analysis of trypsin-activated particles showed well-resolved spikes, although no density was identified for the spikes in uncleaved particles; these data suggested that trypsin activation triggers important conformational changes that give rise to the rigid, entry-competent spike. The nature of these structural changes is not well understood, due to lack of data relative to the uncleaved spike structure. Here we used cryo-EM and cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET) to characterize the structure of the uncleaved virion in two model rotavirus strains. Cryo-EM three-dimensional reconstruction of uncleaved virions showed spikes with a structure compatible with the atomic model of the cleaved spike, and indistinguishable from that of digested particles. Cryo-ET and subvolume average, combined with classification methods, resolved the presence of non-icosahedral structures, providing a model for the complete structure of the uncleaved spike. Despite the similar rigid structure observed for uncleaved and cleaved particles, trypsin activation is necessary for successful infection. These observations suggest that the spike precursor protein must be proteolytically processed, not to achieve a rigid conformation, but to allow the conformational changes that drive virus entry.
Author Summary
Rotavirus is responsible for more than 400,000 annual infant deaths worldwide. Its viral particle bears 60 protuberant spikes that constitute the machinery responsible for virus binding to and entry into the host cell. For efficient infection, the protein molecules that build the spike must be cleaved. Despite the importance of this activation step, the nature of the changes induced in the spike structure is unknown. According to the current hypothesis, the uncleaved spike is very flexible, and activation stabilizes the spike in an entry-competent conformation. Here we used distinct electron microscopy techniques to determine the structure of the uncleaved particle in two model rotavirus strains. Our results provide a complete structure of the uncleaved spike and demonstrate that cleaved and uncleaved spikes have similar conformations, indicating that proteolytic processing is not involved in stabilization of the spike. We suggest that spike processing is important for infection since it is necessary to allow the spike domain movements involved in rotavirus entry.
PMCID: PMC4038622  PMID: 24873828
25.  Building and Refining Protein Models within Cryo-electron Microscopy Density Maps Based on Homology Modeling and Multi-scale Structure Refinement 
Journal of molecular biology  2010;397(3):835-851.
Automatic modeling methods using cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) density maps as constrains are promising approaches to building atomic models of individual proteins or protein domains. However, their application to large macromolecular assemblies has not been possible largely due to computational limitations inherent to such unsupervised methods. Here we describe a new method, EM-IMO, for building, modifying and refining local structures of protein models using cryoEM maps as a constraint. As a supervised refinement method, EM-IMO allows users to specify parameters derived from inspections, so as to guide, and as a consequence, significantly speed up the refinement. An EM-IMO-based refinement protocol is first benchmarked on a data set of 50 homology models using simulated density maps. A multi-scale refinement strategy that combines EM-IMO-based and molecular dynamics (MD)-based refinement is then applied to build backbone models for the seven conformers of the five capsid proteins in our near-atomic resolution cryoEM map of the grass carp reovirus (GCRV) virion, a member of the aquareovirus genus of the Reoviridae family. The refined models allow us to reconstruct a backbone model of the entire GCRV capsid and provide valuable functional insights that are described in the accompanying publication. Our study demonstrates that the integrated use of homology modeling and a multi-scale refinement protocol that combines supervised and automated structure refinement offers a practical strategy for building atomic models based on medium- to high-resolution cryoEM density maps.
PMCID: PMC2860449  PMID: 20109465
cryo-electron microscopy; density fitting; homology modeling; structure refinement; protein structure prediction

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