Getting organised

We recommend to create a single directory per project, i.e. per structure you want to determine. We’ll call this the project directory. It is important to always launch the RELION graphical user-interface (GUI) from the project directory. Inside the project directory you should make a separate directory to store all your raw micrographs or micrograph movies in MRC, TIFF or EER format. We like to call this directory Movies/ if all movies are in one directory, or for example Movies/15jan16/ and Movies/23jan16/ if they are in different directories (e.g. because they were collected on different dates). If for some reason you do not want to place your movies inside the relion project directory, then inside the project directory you can also make a symbolic link to the directory where your movies are stored.

Single-image micrographs should have a .mrc extension, movies can have a .mrc, .mrcs, .tif, .tiff or .eer extension. When you unpacked the tutorial test data, the (Movies/) directory was created. It should contain 24 movies in compressed TIFF format, a gain-reference file (gain.mrc) and a NOTES file with information about the experiment.

We will start by launching the relion GUI. As said before, this GUI always needs to be launched from the project directory. To prevent errors with this, the GUI will ask for confirmation the first time you launch it in a new directory. Make sure you are inside the project directory, and launch the GUI by typing:

relion &

and answer Yes when prompted to set up a new relion project here.

The first thing to do is to import the set of recorded micrograph movies into the pipeline. Select Import from the job-type browser on the left, and fill in the following parameters on the Movies/mics tab:

Import raw movies/micrographs?


Raw input files:


Are these multi-frame movies?


(Set this to No if these are single-frame micrographs)

Optics group name:


(This field can be used to divide the data set into multiple optics groups: separately import each optics group with its own name, and then use the Join star files jobtype to combine the groups.

MTF of the detector:

Pixel size (Angstrom):


Voltage (kV):


Spherical aberration (mm):


Amplitude contrast:


Beamtilt in X (mrad):


Beamtilt in Y (mrad):


On the Others tab, make sure the following is set:

Import other node types?


You may provide a meaningful alias (for example: movies) for this job in the white field named Current job: Give_alias_here. Clicking the Run! button will launch the job. A directory called Import/job001/ will be created, together with a symbolic link to this directory that is called Import/movies. Inside the newly created directory a star file with all the movies is created. Have a look at it using:

less Import/job001/

If you had extracted your particles in a different software package, then instead of going through the Preprocessing steps below, you would use the same Import job-type to import particles star file, 3D references, 3D masks, etc. Note that this is NOT the recommended way to run relion, and that the user is responsible for generating correct star files.

Beam-induced motion correction

The Motion correction job-type implements relion’s own (CPU-based) implementation of the UCSF motioncor2 program for convenient whole-frame movie alignment, as well as a wrapper to the (GPU-based) motioncor2 program itself [ZPA+17]. Besides executing the calculations on the CPU/GPU, there are three other differences between the two implementations:

  • Bayesian polishing (for per-particle motion-correction; see this section) can only read local motion tracks from our own implementation;

  • The motioncor2 program performs outlier-pixel detection on-the-fly, and this information is not conveyed to Bayesian polishing, which may result in unexpectedly bad particles after polishing;

  • Our own implementation can write out the sum of power spectra over several movie frames, which can be passed directly into ctffind 4.1 for faster CTF-estimation.

For these three reasons, we now favour running our own implementation.

On the I/O tab set:

Input movies STAR file:


(Note that the Browse button will only list movie star files.)

First frame for corrected sum:


Last frame for corrected sum:


(This will result in using all movie frames.)

Dose per frame (e/A2)


Pre-exposure (e/A2)


EER fractionation


(This option will be ignored for TIFF files.)

Write output in float16?


(This will save a factor of 2 in disk space compared to the default of writing in float32. Note that RELION and CCPEM will read float16 images, but other programs may not (yet) do so. For example, Gctf will not work with float16 images. Also note that this option does not work with UCSF MotionCor2. For CTF estimation, use CTFFIND-4.1 with pre-calculated power spectra, by activating the ‘Save sum of power spectra’ option below.)

Do dose-weighting?


Save non-dose-weighted as well?


(In some cases non-dose-weighted micrographs give better CTF estimates. To save disk space, we’re not using this option here as the data are very good anyway.)

Save sum of power spectra?


Sum of power spectra every e/A2:


(This seems to be a good value according to measurements by Greg McMullan and Richard Henderson.)

Fill in the Motion tab as follows:



(use larger values for super-resolution movies)

Number of patches X,Y

5 5

Group frames:


Binning factor:


(we often use 2 for super-resolution movies)

Gain-reference image:


(This can be used to provide a gain-reference file for on-the-fly gain-reference correction. This is necessary in this case, as these movies are not yet gain-corrected.)

Gain rotation:

No rotation (0)

Gain flip:

No flipping (0)

Defect file:

(This can be used to mask away broken pixels on the detector. Formats supported in our own implementation and in UCSF motioncor2 are either a text file in UCSF motioncor2 format (each line contains four numbers: x, y, width and height of a defect region); or a defect map (an image in MRC or TIFF format, where 0=good and 1=bad pixels). The coordinate system is the same as the input movie before application of binning, rotation and/or flipping. Note that defect text files produced by SerialEM are NOT supported! However, one can convert a SerialEM-style defect file into a defect map using imod.)

Use RELION’s own implementation?


(this reduces the requirement to install the UCSF implementation. If you have the UCSF program installed anyway, you could also use that one. In that case, you also need to fill in the options below.)

Fill in the Running tab as follows:

Number of MPI procs:


(Assuming you’re running this tutorial on a local computer)

Number of threads:


(As these movies are 24 frames, each thread will do two movie frames)

Submit to queue?


(Again, assuming you’re running this tutorial on a local computer)

Executing this program takes approximately 5 minutes when using 12 threads on a reasonably modern machine. Note that our own implementation of the motioncor2 algorithm does not use a GPU. It is however multi-threaded. As each thread will work independently on a movie frame, it is optimal to use a number of threads such that the number of movie frames divided by the number threads is an integer number. As these movies have 24 frames, using 12 threads will result in 2 frames being processed by each thread. You can look at the estimated beam-induced shifts, and their statistics over the entire data set, by selecting the out: logfile.pdf from the Display: button below the run buttons, or you can look at the summed micrographs by selecting out: Depending on the size of your screen, you should probably downscale the micrographs (Scale: 0.3) and use Sigma contrast: 3 and few columns (something like Number of columns: 3) for convenient visualisation. Note that you cannot select any micrographs from this display. If you want to exclude micrographs at this point (which we will not do, because they are all fine), you could use the Subset selection job-type.

CTF estimation

Next, we will estimate the CTF parameters for each corrected micrograph. You can use the CTF estimation job-type as a wrapper to Kai Zhang’s gctf to execute on the GPU, or you can also use Alexis Rohou and Niko Grigorieff’s ctffind 4.1 to execute efficiently on the CPU. We now prefer ctffind 4.1, as it is the only open-source option, and because it allows reading in the movie-averaged power spectra calculation by relion’s own implementation of the motioncor2 algorithm. Fill in the settings as follows:

On the I/O:

Input micrographs STAR file:


(You can again use the Browse button to select the file of the Motion correction job.)

Use micrograph without dose-weighting?


(These may have better Thon rings than the dose-weighted ones, but we decided in the previous step not to write these out)

Estimate phase shifts?


(This is only useful for phase-plate data)

Amount of astigmatism (A):


(Assuming your scope was reasonably well aligned, this value will be suitable for many data sets.)

On the CTFFIND-4.1 tab, set:

Use CTFFIND-4.1?


CTFFIND-4.1 executable:


Use power spectra from MotionCorr job?


(We can use these, as we told relion’s own implementation of the motioncor2 algorithm to write these out in the previous section.)

Use exhaustive search?


(In difficult cases, the slower exhaustive searches may yield better results. For these data, this is not necessary.)

Estimate CTF on window size (pix)


(If a positive value is given, a squared window of this size at the center of the micrograph will be used to estimate the CTF. This may be useful to exclude parts of the micrograph that are unsuitable for CTF estimation, e.g. the labels at the edge of photographic film. )

FFT box size (pix):


Minimum resolution (A):


Maximum resolution (A):


Minimum defocus cvalue (A):


Maximum defocus cvalue (A):


Defocus step size (A):


On the Gctf tab, make sure the option to use gctf instead is set to No. On the Running tab, use six MPI processes to process the 24 micrographs in parallel. This took less than 10 seconds on our machine. Once the job finishes there are additional files for each micrograph inside the output CtfFind/job003/Movies directory: the .ctf file contains an image in MRC format with the computed power spectrum and the fitted CTF model; the .log file contains the output from ctffind or gctf; (only in case of using ctffind, the .com file contains the script that was used to launch ctffind).

You can visualise all the Thon-ring images using the Display button, selecting out: The zeros between the Thon rings in the experimental images should coincide with the ones in the model. Note that you can sort the display in order of defocus, maximum resolution, figure-of-merit, etc. The logfile.pdf file contains plots of useful parameters, such as defocus, astigmatism, estimated resolution, etc for all micrographs, and histograms of these values over the entire data set. Analysing these plots may be useful to spot problems in your data acquisition.

If you see CTF models that are not a satisfactory fit to the experimental Thon rings, you can delete the .log files for those micrographs, select the CtfFind/job003 entry from the Finished jobs list, alter the parameters in the parameter-panel, and then re-run the job by clicking the Continue! button. Only those micrographs for which a .log file does not exist will be re-processed. You can do this until all CTF models are satisfactory. If this is not possible, or if you decide to discard micrographs because they have unsatisfactory Thon rins, you can use the Subset selection job-type to do this.

Manual particle picking

The next job-type Manual picking may be used to manually select particle coordinates in the (averaged) micrographs. We like to manually select at least several micrographs in order to get familiar with our data. Often, the manually selected particles to calculate reference-free 2D class averages, which will then be used as templates for automated particle picking of the entire data set. However, as of release 3.0, relion also contains a reference-free auto-picking procedure based on a Laplacian-of-Gaussian (LoG) filter. In most cases tested thus far, this procedure provides reasonable starting coordinates, so that the Manual picking step may be skipped. The pre-shipped Schemes for on-the-fly processing in the script make use of this functionality to perform fully automated on-the-fly processing. In this tutorial, we will just launch a Manual picking job for illustrative purposes, and then proceed with LoG-based Auto-picking to generate the first set of particles.

Picking particles manually is a personal experience! If you don’t like to pick particles in relion, we also support coordinate file formats for Jude Short’s ximdisp [Smi99] (with any extension); for xmipp-2.4 [SNRS+08] (with any extension); and for Steven Ludtke’s [TPB+07] (with a .box extension). If you use any of these, make sure to save the coordinate files as a text file in the same directory as from where you imported the micrographs (or movies), and with the same micrograph rootname, but a different (suffix+) extension as the micrograph, e.g. Movies/ or Movies/ for micrograph Movies/006.mrc. You should then use the Import job-type and set Node type: to 2D/3D particle coordinates. Make sure that the Input Files: field contains a linux wildcard, followed by the coordinate-file suffix, e.g. for the examples above you have to give Movies/\*.box or Movies/\*, respectively.

On the I/O tab of the Manual picking job-type, use the Browse button to select the file that was created in CtfFind/job003, ignore the Colors tab, and fill in the Display tab as follows:

Particle diameter (A):


(This merely controls the diameter of the circle that is displayed on the micrograph.)

Scale for micrographs:


(But this depends on your screen size)

Sigma contrast:


(Micrographs are often best display with sigma-contrast, i.e. black will be 3 standard deviation below the mean and white will be 3 standard deviations above the mean. The grey-scale is always linear from black to white. See the DisplayImages entry on the RELION wiki for more details)

White value:


(Use this to manually set which value will be white. For this to work, Sigma contrast should be set to 0)

Black value:


(Use this to manually set which value will be black. For this to work, Sigma contrast should be set to 0)

Lowpass filter (A):


(Playing with this may help you to see particles better in very noisy micrographs)

Highpass filter (A):


(This is sometimes useful to remove dark->light gradients over the entire micrograph)

Pixel size:


(This is needed to calculate the particle diameter, and the low- and high-pass filters)

OR use Topaz denoising?:


(This is a new feature in relion-4.0 and will make a system call to topaz)

Topaz executable:



At LMB, we run topaz through the following bash script:

source /public/EM/anaconda3/bin/activate topaz
topaz $@

Run the job by clicking the Run! button and click on a few particles if you want to. However, as we will use the LoG-based autopicking in the next section, you do not need to pick any if you don’t want to. If you were going to use manually picked particles for an initial 2D classification job, then you would need approximately 500-1,000 particles in order to calculate reasonable class averages. Left-mouse click for picking, middle-mouse click for deleting a picked particle, right-mouse click for a pop-up menu in which you will need to save the coordinates!. Note that you can always come back to pick more from where you left it (provided you saved the star files with the coordinates throught the pop-up menu), by selecting ManualPick/job004 from the Finished jobs and clicking the Continue! button.