Electron microscopy (EM) is a technology that enables visualization of single proteins at a nanometer resolution. However, current protein analysis by EM mainly relies on immunolabeling with gold-particle-conjugated antibodies, which is compromised by large size of antibody, precluding precise detection of protein location in biological samples. Here, we develop a specific chemical labeling method for EM detection of proteins at single-molecular level. Rational design of α-helical peptide tag and probe structure provided a complementary reaction pair that enabled specific cysteine conjugation of the tag. The developed chemical labeling with gold-nanoparticle-conjugated probe showed significantly higher labeling efficiency and detectability of high-density clusters of tag-fused G protein-coupled receptors in freeze-fracture replicas compared with immunogold labeling. Furthermore, in ultrathin sections, the spatial resolution of the chemical labeling was significantly higher than that of antibody-mediated labeling. These results demonstrate substantial advantages of the chemical labeling approach for single protein visualization by EM.
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