UW–Madison has a strong record of contributions to structural biology, cell biology, virology, and medicine, and it hosts a vibrant community of structural biologists. But to remain competitive in their respective fields, many researchers with expertise in molecular biology, cell biology, microbiology, and biomedicine need to use cryo-EM. Until recently, they have had to seek out those resources at better-equipped and better-staffed cryo- EM facilities located primarily on the U.S. coasts.
To meet the growing on-campus need for cryo-EM equipment and expertise, several years ago, a core of researchers across campus began working to assemble the full power of cryo-EM at UW.
UW–Madison and the Department of Biochemistry have been at the forefront of structural biology research for decades, says Brian Fox, chair and professor of biochemistry and associate vice chancellor for research policy and integrity. This includes 35 years of operation of the National Magnetic Resonance Facility at Madison, which was established by biochemistry professor emeritus John Markley, and 15 years of contributions to the NIH-funded Protein Structure Initiative, which was led by Fox, Markley, biochemistry professor emeritus George Phillips, and former biochemistry professor David Pagliarini.
“Knowledge of the structure of biological molecules is profoundly transformative and enabling, leading to better questions and answers to the key challenges of our research endeavor,” Fox says. “These efforts have positioned us well to embrace cryo-EM as a newly emerging, transformative technology.”
Paul Ahlquist, lead investigator for the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Center for Research in Virology at the Morgridge Institute for Research and professor of oncology, molecular virology, and plant pathology, teamed up with Fox and Morgridge Institute director Brad Schwartz to initiate a campus-wide push for a major investment in cryo-EM.
A project led by biochemistry and bacteriology professor Robert Landick, with funding from the UW2020: WARF Discovery Initiative, set the stage for creating the UW–Madison Cryo-EM Research Center. Landick was joined on the project by Desirée Benefield, a scientist and expert in cryo-EM. Benefield played an integral role in the facility’s success by providing early guidance to future users, including training them in sample preparation, imaging, and analysis.
Funding was needed to equip the center. Groups contributing funding to the $15 million-plus initiative included the Department of Biochemistry and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Morgridge Institute for Research, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, School of Medicine and Public Health, and Departments of Biomolecular Chemistry and Neuroscience.
Read the full feature story, A Cold, Hard Look at Macromolecules.