This mini-review provides an update regarding the substantial progress that has been made in using single-particle cryo-EM to obtain high-resolution structures for proteins and other macromolecules whose particle sizes are smaller than 100 kDa. We point out that establishing the limits of what can be accomplished, both in terms of particle size and attainable resolution, serves as a guide for what might be expected when attempting to improve the resolution of small flexible portions of a larger structure using focused refinement approaches. These approaches, which involve computationally ignoring all but a specific, targeted region of interest on the macromolecules, is known as ‘masking and refining,' and it thus is the computational equivalent of the ‘divide and conquer' approach that has been used so successfully in X-ray crystallography. The benefit of masked refinement, however, is that one is able to determine structures in their native architectural context, without physically separating them from the biological connections that they require for their function. This mini-review also compares where experimental achievements currently stand relative to various theoretical estimates for the smallest particle size that can be successfully reconstructed to high resolution. Since it is clear that a substantial gap still remains between the two, we briefly recap the areas in which further improvement seems possible, both in equipment and in methods.

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