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JEMCA, electron microscopy to advance research in structural biology and new materials

It is a pioneering facility that houses two high-end electron microscopes: one to resolve the structure of large protein and nucleic acid complexes and the other to study materials at the atomic scale. Created thanks to the joint action of several research institutions, including the CSIC, it is located at the ALBA Synchrotron (Cerdanyola, Barcelona) and is open to the entire scientific community.

Cryo-TEM microscope

To be able to see the location of a specific atom in a material, to visualise that material in 3D as well as the position of all its atoms and, if any of them is badly positioned, to be able to indicate it to the engineers who created the material so that they can correct it. This is one of the examples of the extraordinary capacity of the new METCAM electron microscope, which is part of the JEMCA, inaugurated a few days ago at the ALBA Synchrotron in Cerdanyola.

The JEMCA hosts two microscopes: the METCAM, coordinated by the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), and the Cryo-TEM, coordinated by the Institute of Molecular Biology of Barcelona (IBMB) of the CSIC.

This second microscope is the key to resolving the structure of proteins that cannot be analysed with other methods quickly and with high resolution. With Cryo-TEM, the process consists of preserving the sample in its physiological state in a vitrified solution, cooling it so rapidly that the water molecules in the solution do not crystallise but they form an amorphous solid that does not damage the structure of the proteins. The sample can be then analysed with an electron microscope to see its structure at high resolution. Not only is this process faster than traditional X-ray crystallography (which requires crystallization of the sample), but it also allows obtaining the structure of biological complexes that until now were impossible to solve.

Cryo-TEM: the process is faster than traditional X-ray crystallography (which requires crystallization of the sample) and allows the structure of biological complexes that until now could not be solved to be resolved.

Some projects are already underway. For example, it is being used to analyse proteins involved in neurodegenerative diseases; to study cellular microtubules, essential in cell proliferation and embryo formation; or research study of Covid.

The Joint Electron Microscopy Center at ALBA (JEMCA) has been created thanks to the collaboration of eight different partners will be using this centre: the Institute for Molecular Biology of Barcelona (IBMB-CSIC), the Catalan Institute for Nanoscienc and Nanotechnology (ICN2), the Institute for Biomedical Research (IRB Barcelona), the Centre for Genome Regulation (CRG), the Institute for Materials Science of Barcelona (ICMAB-CSIC), the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), and the ALBA Synchrotron. The project definition phase also included the fundamental support of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).

This is the only facility in all of Spain that allows working with tools that are complementary to the synchrotron light source with the aim of gathering more information in the field of structural biology and materials science.


The Cryo-TEM microscope is key to being able to solve rapidly and with high resolution the protein structures that cannot be analysed with other techniques. This microscope is already being put to use in experiments with an elevated social return. For example, IBMB-CSIC researchers Núria Verdaguer and Pablo Guerra, in collaboration with IRB Barcelona researchers Manuel Palacín and David Aparicio and the spin-off Ona Therapeutics, are analysing a protein involved in metastatic lung cancer as well as the protein’s complex with an antibody of interest for a therapy that targets metastases. The Cryo-TEM is the second microscope of its kind in Spain and represents a great advance for the user community in this field.

METCAM: Aimed to analyse different types of materials. Its extremely high spatial resolution reaches below 0.5 angstroms, which allows viewing atoms individually

Detail of the METCAM microscope


The METCAM microscope, which is currently being set up, is unique in Spain. It will be used to analyse different types of materials. Its extremely high spatial resolution reaches below 0.5 angstroms (one angstrom is ten million times smaller than one millimetre), which allows viewing atoms individually. It should also be noted that with this equipment it will be possible to correlate the data obtained with the synchrotron light techniques carried out in the same area. This makes it easier to tackle challenges such as hydrogen production, CO2 reduction and the development of quantum materials from different perspectives.

For example, the team of ICREA lecturer Jordi Arbiol, group leader at ICN2, is carrying out several projects to develop scalable quantum bits for quantum computing from hybrid nanostructured materials, one of them in collaboration with Microsoft. In addition to the two microscopes, in order to prepare the samples in very thin films and observe them at METCAM, the centre has a focused ion beam (FIB) instrument, installed at the ICN2. The METCAM will host its first experiments in April.

Open to the entire scientific community

These new microscopes are open to the entire scientific community. Academic access is free of charge on a competitive basis, as is the case with the rest of the equipment at the ALBA Synchrotron. Members of the project have a reserved time of use.

The cost of the microscopes rises to a total of 5.8 million euros. Fifty percent of this amount was financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), with the support of the Ministry for Research and Universities of the Government of Catalonia, through the aid for the implementation of cooperative projects for the creation, construction, acquisition and improvement of shared scientific and technological equipment and platforms, under the framework of the ERDF Operational Programme for Catalonia 2014-2020.

The JEMCA thus expands research capacities in Catalonia, which will also be strengthened by the electron microscope co-funded by the same ERDF programme and currently being installed at the University of Barcelona. Furthermore, through the ICN2, JEMCA forms part of the European Distributed Research Infrastructure for Advanced Electron Microscopy (e-DREAM).

Contact and more information about Cryo-TEM