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Nat Protoc. 2018 Aug;13(8):1869-1895. doi: 10.1038/s41596-018-0023-8. Epub 2018 Aug 2.

Combined expansion microscopy with structured illumination microscopy for analyzing protein complexes.

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Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO, USA.
Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO, USA.
Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO, USA.
Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO, USA.
Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS, USA.


Biologists have long been fascinated with the organization and function of intricate protein complexes. Therefore, techniques for precisely imaging protein complexes and the location of proteins within these complexes are critically important and often require multidisciplinary collaboration. A challenge in these explorations is the limited resolution of conventional light microscopy. However, a new microscopic technique has circumvented this resolution limit by making the biological sample larger, thus allowing for super-resolution of the enlarged structure. This 'expansion' is accomplished by embedding the sample in a hydrogel that, when exposed to water, uniformly expands. Here, we present a protocol that transforms thick expansion microscopy (ExM) hydrogels into sections that are physically expanded four times, creating samples that are compatible with the super-resolution technique structured illumination microscopy (SIM). This super-resolution ExM method (ExM-SIM) allows the analysis of the three-dimensional (3D) organization of multiprotein complexes at ~30-nm lateral (xy) resolution. This protocol details the steps necessary for analysis of protein localization using ExM-SIM, including antibody labeling, hydrogel preparation, protease digestion, post-digestion antibody labeling, hydrogel embedding with tissue-freezing medium (TFM), cryosectioning, expansion, image alignment, and particle averaging. We have used this approach for 3D mapping of in situ protein localization in the Drosophila synaptonemal complex (SC), but it can be readily adapted to study thick tissues such as brain and organs in various model systems. This procedure can be completed in 5 d.


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