New technique reveals the structure of DNA at the atomic level

The intimate connection between function and form in biology has been recognized for centuries. Understanding how organisms grow, adapt, and reproduce necessitates a grasp of their physical structures. The microscope has been a transformative tool in scientific progress for over four centuries.

In modern microscopy, techniques like microcrystal electron diffraction (MicroED) have enabled the examination of the tiniest structures. Unlike optical microscopes that use light, MicroED bombards crystalline samples with electrons, revealing intricate details about their atomic configuration.

Initially developed for protein structures, MicroED’s application expanded to pharmaceutical compounds and small organic molecules. However, researchers wondered if it could work for DNA. Recently, a team at Arizona State University, in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles, successfully demonstrated the first use of MicroED to analyze a DNA crystal.

Compared to traditional X-ray crystallography, MicroED allows researchers to work with much smaller crystals, reducing the bottleneck in research caused by the complexity of growing large crystals. Cryo-focused ion beam (cryo-FIB) milling further refines the crystal size, resulting in high-resolution data for crystal structure determination.

This breakthrough has opened up opportunities to study DNA and RNA structures, supporting the development of nanotechnologies and pharmacological treatments. The potential for understanding nucleic acids’ structure and function is now within reach, thanks to MicroED’s capabilities.

The research paper, published in the journal Structure, credits scientists such as Brent Nannenga, Alison Haymaker, Andrey Bardin from Arizona State University, and Tamir Gonen, and Michael Martynowycz from the University of California, Los Angeles, for their contributions to this groundbreaking work.

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