VARI invests $10M in microscope facility

VARI invests $10M in microscope facility

The FEI Titan Krios, a cryo-electron microscope. Courtesy VARI

The Van Andel Research Institute downtown has beefed up its seeing power to the tune of $10 million in new equipment and construction.

The biomedical research institute in Grand Rapids, which is part of the nonprofit Van Andel Institute, said yesterday it added cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, to its repertoire with the opening of its cryo-EM facility.

Cryo-EM allows researchers an “unprecedented” amount of detail in viewing molecular and atomic interactions.

“Our new state-of-the-art cryo-EM facility, which includes significant investments in technology and talent, is part of our unwavering commitment to improve human health through scientific innovation,” said David Van Andel, chairman and CEO, VAI. “Not only will it fuel the discovery of life-changing treatments for devastating diseases, but it also will enhance Grand Rapids’ reputation as a destination for outstanding biomedical research.”

The new facility houses an FEI Titan Krios, the highest-resolution commercially available cryo-electron microscope, in addition to an FEI Talos Artica and an FEI Tecnai Spirit G2 BioTWIN. VARI said its new Krios is one of fewer than 100 existing in the world and the second in the state.

“The resolution available with the Krios, compared to earlier methods, is akin to upgrading from a road atlas to Google Earth,” said Peter Jones, chief scientific officer, VARI. “It offers exquisite detail of complex systems, which will help us find new therapies so desperately needed for patients around the world.”

Included in the expansion is the hiring of three cryo-EM experts — investigators Huilin Li and Wei Lü and facility manager Gongpu Zhao. Zhao played a critical role in a 2013 study that used cryo-EM to reveal the HIV-1 virus’ outer-shell structure.

Cryo-EM allows researchers to determine molecular structure without having to go through the time-consuming process of X-ray crystallography. With cryo-EM, scientists can flash-freeze molecules or cells in solution and scan them with an electron beam to assemble a 3D image.

“In a way, biologists are like locksmiths,” Li said. “We use tools such as cryo-EM or X-ray crystallography to see all of the facets of the lock— a normal protein doing its job in a cell or an abnormal protein in cancer, for example — and then use that information to design a key to fit the lock.”


The research arm of Van Andel Institute, founded in 1996 by Jay and Betty Van Andel, VARI is dedicated to determining the epigenetic, genetic, molecular and cellular origins of various diseases and finding their cures.

The work of more than 360 scientists, educators and staff is supported by the Van Andel Institute.

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