Coronavirus Structure Mapped with Cryo-EM

Cryo-EM has been used to generate the first 3D atomic-scale map of the coronavirus (2019-nCoV). This is a key step towards developing a vaccine and treatments for the infection.

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Atomic-Scale 3D Map of Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)

First 3D Atomic-Scale Map of Coronavirus

The first 3D atomic-scale map of the coronavirus has been created by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health. This is a significant and vital step towards developing vaccines, therapeutic antibodies and other medical counter-measures.

The AMETEK Gatan K3 TEM camera was used to map the spike protein. This is the part of the virus that penetrates host cells, enabling it to replicate.

The team are now working to develop a vaccine, based on this research.

Coronavirus: How biologists resolved the structure of the virus so spectacularly quickly

More information is available in this story on Wiley Analytical Science.

We’d also upgraded our K2 detector to a K3 detector six months ago so for an average user like me, the key advantage here was the speed with which I could collect the movies. I think we probably doubled the number of movies that we could collect in a single day by moving from the K2 to K3. Also, just the physical parameters of the detector itself are larger – so if you’re trying to get a greater number of particles, this means you can collect fewer movies.
Daniel Wrapp, University of Texas at Austin
Coronavirus Spike Protein Structure
Structure of 2019-nCoV spike protein in the prefusion conformation. Image from The University of Texas at Austin.
Through single-particle cryo-electron microscopy, the researchers determined the atomic structure of the spikes. This helps explain the virus’s resistance to antibodies used to disable similar illnesses. The K3 camera was the key detector used to determine the native structure in record time.
Christopher Booth - Director of Life Science, AMETEK Gatan
The K3 camera not only gave us great images that provided the atomic-resolution structure, it also prevented data collection from becoming a bottleneck, ultimately letting our team concentrate on getting the structure as quickly as possible.
Jason McLellan - Associate Professor (lead researcher on the project), University of Texas at Austin
We would like to congratulate all the researchers for their tremendous efforts in driving this impressive breakthrough in such a short amount of time. The Gatan team takes great pride in the value our advanced instrumentation provides to critical life sciences research.
Narayan Vishwanathan - Division Vice President, AMETEK Gatan

More information about this significant achievement is available here from The University of Texas at Austin.

Cryo-EM at the University of Texas at Austin
Nianshuang Wang, research associate (right) and Daniel Wrapp, graduate student (left) review cryo-EM images. Imag from the The Sauer Structural Biology Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin.

Read the Scientific Paper

The breakthrough research at the University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health has been published in the journal Science:

Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation


Single particle cryo-electron microscopy is a characterisation technique for structural biology, with a high resolution comparable to X-ray crystallography. Frozen-hydrated samples are studied in vitreous (non-crystalline) ice. The ultra-structure, buffer and ligand distribution are maintained in their natural state.

  • Study samples in their natural, hydrated state – Structures can be observed in a biologically relevant environment, including sample and buffer concentration.
  • Suitable for larger assemblies – Including molecules larger than 150 kDa, which are heterogeneous, metastable, with multiple sub-units or difficult to crystallise.
  • Atomic resolution structures – Study asymmetric side chains, hydrogen bonds and water molecules, as well as alpha helices and beta sheets.
  • Controlled chemical environment – Experimental conditions can be adjusted to observe molecules in various functional states.
  • No crystallisation – Less sample preparation, for faster results.

More about cryo-EM in structural biology

Virus reconstruction with Cryo-EM
Virus reconstructed with cryo-EM

Cryo-EM in Virus Research

This is not the first time that AMETEK Gatan’s electron microscopy technology has contributed to breakthrough research into virus transmission and disease outbreaks. In 2016, the K2 Summit (a previous model of the K3 camera) was used to capture the first 3D structure of the Zika virus. This information helped lead to a better understanding of the illness and potential treatments.

The K2 camera has also been used to investigate these structures:



Gatan K3 Camera

Gatan K3 Camera

  • Direct detection TEM camera
  • Electron counting for high quality images
  • Low dose for beam-sensitive materials and longer observations
  • Large 24 megapixel field of view
Gatan Solarus 2

Gatan Solarus II Plasma Cleaner

  • Removes surface contamination from TEM/SEM samples and holders for better results
  • Gentle cleaning for delicate samples
  • Easy to use, with pre-programmed workflows

More Information

Blue Scientific is the official distributor of AMETEK Gatan systems in the Nordic region. We’re available to provide quotes and answer all your questions – just get in touch:

 Contact us on +44 (0)1223 422 269 or

More about cryo-EM

View the Gatan range