Macromolecular complexes that exhibit continuous forms of structural flexibility pose a challenge for many existing tools in cryo-EM single-particle analysis. We describe a new tool, called multi-body refinement, which models flexible complexes as a user-defined number of rigid bodies that move independently from each other. Using separate focused refinements with iteratively improved partial signal subtraction, the new tool generates improved reconstructions for each of the defined bodies in a fully automated manner. Moreover, using principal component analysis on the relative orientations of the bodies over all particles in the data set, we generate movies that describe the most important motions in the data. Our results on two test cases, a cytoplasmic ribosome from Plasmodium falciparum, and the spliceosomal B-complex from yeast, illustrate how multi-body refinement can be useful to gain unique insights into the structure and dynamics of large and flexible macromolecular complexes.
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