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Methods Enzymol. 2007;426:337-73.

Electron microscopy of integrins.

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Department of Cell Biology, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, USA.


Integrins are a family of heterodimeric, cell-surface receptors that mediate interactions between the cytoskeleton and the extracellular matrix. We have used electron microscopy and single-particle image analysis combined with molecular modeling to investigate the structures of the full-length integrin alpha(IIb)beta(3) and the ectodomain of alpha(V)beta(3) in a complex with fibronectin. The full-length integrin alpha(IIb)beta(3) is purified from human platelets by ion exchange and gel filtration chromatography in buffers containing the detergent octyl-beta-D-glucopyranoside, whereas the recombinant ectodomain of alpha(V)beta(3) is soluble in aqueous buffer. Transmission electron microscopy is performed either in negative stain, where the protein is embedded in a heavy metal such as uranyl acetate, or in the frozen-hydrated state, where the sample is flash-frozen such that the buffer is vitrified and native conditions are preserved. Individual integrin particles are selected from low-dose micrographs, either by manual identification or an automated method using a cross-correlation search of the micrograph against a set of reference images. Due to the small size of integrin heterodimers (approximately 250 kDa) and the low electron dose required to minimize beam damage, the signal-to-noise level of individual particles is quite low, both by negative-stain electron microscopy and electron cryomicroscopy. Consequently, it is necessary to average many particle images with equivalent views. The particle images are subjected to reference-free alignment and classification, in which the particles are aligned to a common view and further grouped by statistical methods into classes with common orientations. Assessment of the structure from a set of two-dimensional averaged projections is often difficult, and a further three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction analysis is performed to classify each particle as belonging to a specific projection from a single 3D model. The 3D reconstruction algorithm is an iterative projection-matching routine in which the classified particles are used to construct a new, 3D map for the next iteration. Docking of known high-resolution structures of individual subdomains within the molecular envelope of the 3D EM map is used to derive a pseudoatomic model of the integrin complex. This approach of 3D EM image analysis and pseudoatomic modeling is a powerful strategy for exploring the structural biology of transmembrane signaling by integrins because it is likely that multiple conformational states will be difficult to crystallize, whereas the different states should be amenable to electron cryomicroscopy.

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