U-M Receives $1.5M to Study Inner Workings of Cells

The University of Michigan announced it has received the $1.5 million Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Sample Preparation for Cellular Cryo-ET Award to open new windows into human cells with the aim of changing how biologists see and learn from these atomic-level structures.
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Cells on scientific background
University of Michigan has received $1.5 million from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Sample Preparation for Cellular Cryo-ET award to study atomic level cellular structures. // Stock Photo

The University of Michigan announced it has received the $1.5 million Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Sample Preparation for Cellular Cryo-ET Award to open new windows into human cells with the aim of changing how biologists see and learn from these atomic-level structures.

“This award will allow us to support our early career faculty with the most state-of-the-art technology, which is essential for their career development,” says Melanie Ohi, professor of cell and developmental biology and the program’s principal investigator.

“But a big part of this work will also be broadening access across the university, to build a vibrant community of researchers in various fields who can use this technique to answer important biological questions.”

Currently, structural biologists determine the forms of molecular machines in atomic detail to better understand how they function — or what happens when they malfunction. The award will support the expansion of a cutting-edge structural biology technique called cryo-electro tomography (cryo-ET).

This approach deepens the understanding structural biologists can gain because instead of looking at cellular components that have been purified and isolated out of a cell as is traditionally done, cells are able to be examined within the context of their cellular environment.

The process involves flash-freezing cells in a thin layer of glass-like ice, etching thin windows into the cells, and then using electrons to determine the shapes of the molecules preserved in these thin sections. The award will support access to advanced microscopes and other techniques along the development of expertise.

This award will also allow the cryo-EM facility at the U-M Life Sciences Institute to build on previous investments from U-M President Dr. Mark Schlissel’s Biosciences Initiative.

With the grant from the U-M initiative, the LSI invested in new equipment to make single particle cryo-EM more available across campus and established a sample-to-structure pipeline to train a new generation of users.

These established strategies will now be replicated for the new cryo-ET program. The Biosciences Initiative funding also enabled the recruitment of cryo-ET expert Shyamal Mosalaganti, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology.

“Support from the Biosciences Initiative enabled us to clearly show that this university is willing to invest in and advance the latest approaches to innovative scientific research, and that we have the experience to expand access to these highly specialized techniques,” says Ohi.

In addition to Ohi, the research team for this program includes faculty members Michael Cianfrocco, Shyamal Mosalaganti, and Janet Smith of the KLSI and the Medical School, and Min Su, LSI cryo-EM resource director.

The cryo-EM facility at the LSI is one of the largest end-to-end facilities in the country, providing access to sample preparation, data collection, and user education. It offers advanced freezing machines, a Thermo Fisher Aquilos for preparing cells for the process, and high-resolution microscopes.

“The goal of the Biosciences Initiative was to advance U-M to the cutting edge of science in the United States by investing in expert faculty and the technology and resources that support true innovation,” says Schlissel. “This award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation shows the value of that investment, recognizing U-M as one of the top cryo-EM centers in the country.”

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