SIF 168 Cryo-EM

Project Manager: Lukas Tamm

The purpose of this award is to fund the start-up recruitment package for a key hire in the area of structural biology.

Approved: Summer 2019

Project Dates: 10/01/2020 – 9/30/2022

Funding Awarded: $1,650,000

Executive Summary

Cryo Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM) is the most burgeoning new technique in the arsenal of methods to elucidate atomic structures of biomolecules (proteins, DNA, RNA, carbohydrates), viruses, and ultrastructure of cells at unprecedented resolution. Although EM of plastic embedded or negatively stained biological materials that produce images at lower resolution is older, two breakthroughs in the last decade or so have elevated biological EM to new levels. First, methods were developed to ultra-rapidly freeze and preserve biological samples in vitreous, i.e. glassy rather than crystalline ice, and second, a new generation of direct electron detectors were invented that obviated the need to convert electrons into photons for detection on photographic film or conventional CCD cameras. These two inventions, which were honored by the Noble prize in Chemistry in 2017, coupled with new methods of data analysis led to the so-called “resolution revolution” in structural biology. Since then the number of cryo EM structures solved has grown exponentially, and almost every issue of the leading journals Nature and Science reports on a new impactful cryo-EM structure.

UVA has positioned itself early and well in this field, through its current faculty. To maintain the momentum and to continue to be a leading institution and regional center in this field, this award enables the hire of one or two outstanding new faculty members with expertise in cryo-EM.

Current Status: Active


The goal of this project is to keep UVA at the forefront of research in Cryo Electron Microscopy, the most recent and most advanced method to determine atomic structures of biomolecules and viruses, as well as the ultrastructure of cells at unprecedented resolution. This technology was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017 and one of the laureates, Dr. Richard Henderson, gave a virtual lecture at UVA on March 22, 2021 ( UVA has positioned itself at the forefront of this technology by establishing a regional NIH supported cryo-EM Center in 2017. Dr. Ed Egelman who is a pioneer in this area was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 and Dr. Jochen Zimmer who is using cryo-EM as his main tool to elucidate the structural basis of carbohydrate biosynthesis was named in October 2021 a Howard Hughes Investigator, one of the most prestigious awards for a biomedical scientist.

The central purpose of this award is to maintain strength in this area through two main activities. First, we purchased, in part by ETF funds, a new Glacios electron microscope, which was installed in the Snyder Translational Research Building in the first 6 months of 2021. The new microscope started operations for UVA scientists in August and is performing beyond expectations. Second, we hired an outstanding scientist in this area from the ETH Zurich, Switzerland (the Swiss equivalent of MIT or Cal Tech). Dr. Ahmad Jomaa is a star of the next generation in this field and will begin as an assistant professor at UVA in January 2022.