Elizabeth R. Wright

Henry Lardy Professor of Biochemistry, Morgridge Institute Affiliate Lab Website erwright2@wisc.edu(608) 265-0666

471B HF DeLuca Biochemistry Laboratories
433 Babcock Drive
Madison, WI 53706-1544


B.S., Columbus State University
Ph.D., Emory University
Postdoctoral, California Institute of Technology

NIH Bibliography

3D structure of viruses, bacteria, and mammalian cells by cryo-electron microscopy

The Wright lab explores a range of topics in bacteriology, cell biology, and virology. Simultaneously, we develop cryo-electron microscopy, cryo-electron tomography, and correlative imaging technologies. Our approach provides a basis for defining the architecture of complex cellular and host-pathogen systems so that this information may be used to develop novel antimicrobials, therapeutics, and vaccines.

Image of Caulobacter flagellum
Caulobacter flagellum at 3.4 Å resolution. Low-pass filtered high-resolution structure of the Caulobacter crescentus flagellum. The FljK flagellin monomers were individually colored to allow for visualization of the 5- and 11-start protofilaments.

Bacterial Motility and Adherence

The flagella and pili of many bacteria are essential for motility, adherence, biofilm formation, and are often crucial virulence factors for pathogenic species. For many species, the two appendages are temporally and spatially regulated and organized to work either in synchrony or alternately in order to coordinate motility and surface colonization. Our long-term goal is to understand 1) the structural implications of the incorporation of multiple flagellins into the flagellar filament and 2) the structural variation between pili at the macromolecular level. We use a number of model systems to study bacterial pathogenesis and virulence, bacterial appendage structure and function, and bacteria-bacteriophage interactions.

Human Cells

We are interested in how cells regulate their function and what causes cellular dysfunction. The dynamic three-dimensional landscape within cells drives how macromolecules, complexes, and organelles interact to maintain cellular processes such as those associated with metabolism, cell division, and trafficking. To further define concepts of cell development and structural plasticity, we are investigating a number of neuron cell types. We use cryo-microscopy methods to study platelet cells to determine relationships that are present between known patient genetics, platelet function, and platelet structure.

Virus Entry and Assembly

Enveloped viruses, such as HIV, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and measles virus (MeV), are human pathogens. Due to the significant variation in virus morphology, cryo-CLEM, cryo-FIB milling, and cryo-ET are the best technologies to use for targeting structures of interest, revealing them in intact cells, and for determining the structures at macromolecular to high-resolution. Our long-term goals are to understand the structural bases for 1) glycoprotein-mediated viral fusion, 2) virus replication, and 3) virus assembly and egress.

HIV tethering image
Direct visualization of endogenous tethers on HIV-1 attached to HeLa cells by cryo-ET. HeLa cells transfected with an HIV vector were imaged by cryo-ET. Tomographic slice of HIV-1 virions attached to plasma membrane. Immature and mature virions, maturation intermediates, and HIV budding from the plasma membrane were observed. Elements shown include HIV-1 virions (purple), immature Gag polyprotein (pink), mature cores (blue), tethers (green), and the plasma membrane (orange).

Technology Development

In addition to the biological projects, we develop methods and tools to push the limits of cryo-EM and its correlation with other imaging modalities.

Correlative light and electron microscopy (CLEM)

We develop novel equipment and molecular approaches for bridging the information gap between cryo-EM and fluorescence microscopy. This includes the design and use of cryo-stages for fluorescence microscopy and the software for correlation between microscope systems. By rapidly freezing cells cultured on EM substrates, we are able to directly correlate fluorescence microscopy images to images collected in the electron microscope. This technology is being applied to fundamental questions in all areas of structural cell biology.

Image of Cryo-CLEM simplified using the CorRelator GUI
Cryo-CLEM simplified using the CorRelator GUI (left to right). Cryo-CLEM of an RSV-infected cell displaying a fluorescent reporter gene in RSV-infected cells (red) and labeled RSV F glycoprotein (green). Overlay of a cryo-EM image and the transformed fluorescence image. Magnified view of the cyan boxed area marked. The orange and red asterisks indicate RSV glycoprotein fluorescent signals. Magnified cryo-EM montage view of Nanogold-Alexa488 immuno-labeled RSV particles. The RSV filaments extend from the cell plasma membrane and cell protrusions (dashed yellow line). Central sections through the tomograms. White triangles indicate the RSV ribonucleoprotein (RNP) inside the RSV filament. The black arrows note the RSV glycoproteins bound to antibodies and 6-nm gold.

Affinity capture

We develop methods for targeting macromolecules, cells, and viruses to EM substrates. Many of the enveloped viruses we study are pleiomorphic, grow to low titers, are cell-associated, and require the use of purification strategies that may alter the native structure of the virus. We adapt and use affinity technologies to address challenges associated with structural studies of enveloped viruses.


Substrates used for imaging and other biophysical measurements poorly replicate the native physiological environments where cells exist. We engineer strategies to mimic cellular environments so that we are better able to define structure-function relationships within and between cells.

Photo of Elizabeth R. Wright

Areas of Expertise

  • Biomolecular Folding & Interactions
  • Cell Structure & Signaling
  • Immunology & Virology
  • Membrane Dynamics & Proteins
  • Structural Biology