The extent of ribosomal heterogeneity has caught increasing interest over the past few years, as recent studies have highlighted the presence of structural variations of the ribosome. More precisely, the heterogeneity of the ribosome covers multiple scales, including the dynamical aspects of ribosomal motion at the single particle level, specialization at the cellular and subcellular scale, or evolutionary differences across species. Upon solving the ribosome atomic structure at medium to high resolution, cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has enabled investigating all these forms of heterogeneity. In this review, we present some recent advances in quantifying ribosome heterogeneity, with a focus on the conformational and evolutionary variations of the ribosome and their functional implications. These efforts highlight the need for new computational methods and comparative tools, to comprehensively model the continuous conformational transition pathways of the ribosome, as well as its evolution. While developing these methods presents some important challenges, it also provides an opportunity to extend our interpretation and usage of cryo-EM data, which would more generally benefit the study of molecular dynamics and evolution of proteins and other complexes.
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