Revealing the assembly of filamentous proteins with scanning transmission electron microscopy

Cristina Martinez-Torres, Federica Burla, Celine Alkemade, Gijsje H. Koenderink

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Filamentous proteins are responsible for the superior mechanical strength of our cells and tissues. The remarkable mechanical properties of protein filaments are tied to their complex molecular packing structure. However, since these filaments have widths of several to tens of nanometers, it has remained challenging to quantitatively probe their molecular mass density and three-dimensional packing order. Scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) is a powerful tool to perform simultaneous mass and morphology measurements on filamentous proteins at high resolution, but its applicability has been greatly limited by the lack of automated image processing methods. Here, we demonstrate a semi-automated tracking algorithm that is capable of analyzing the molecular packing density of intra- and extracellular protein filaments over a broad mass range from STEM images. We prove the wide applicability of the technique by analyzing the mass densities of two cytoskeletal proteins (actin and microtubules) and of the main protein in the extracellular matrix, collagen. The high-throughput and spatial resolution of our approach allow us to quantify the internal packing of these filaments and their polymorphism by correlating mass and morphology information. Moreover, we are able to identify periodic mass variations in collagen fibrils that reveal details of their axially ordered longitudinal self-assembly. STEM-based mass mapping coupled with our tracking algorithm is therefore a powerful technique in the characterization of a wide range of biological and synthetic filaments

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0226277
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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