Nobel Prize honors method revealing details of molecules

Marlene Weaver
October 6, 2017

Cryo-electron microscopy, the Nobel committee said, "has moved biochemistry into a new era", because "a picture is a key to understanding". The award has gone to Richard Henderson, Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank for developing cryo-electron microscopy, which cools down substances to liquid nitrogen temperatures.

Speaking at the conference by telephone, Frank said that the development of cryo-electron microscopy "fills an important gap and extends the range of molecules that can be determined at atomic resolution".

Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday. The trio will share the prize money of 9mn Swedish kronor ($1.1mn).

Committee chair Sara Snogerup Linse explained: "Soon, there are no more secrets, now, we can see the intricate details of the biomolecules in every corner of our cells and every drop of our body fluids".

John Hardy, professor of neuroscience at University College London, described the development of cryo-electron microscopy as "transformative".

In the 1980s, Swiss biophysicist Jacques Dubochet set to work solving another problem that was keeping scientists from creating images and models of biomolecules. Though much of this work was done before then, he said joining Columbia was instrumental to meeting colleagues across departments and working with brilliant students who contributed pieces to this "immense puzzle".

Last year's chemistry Nobel also went to small-scale work, honoring three scientists who worked to construct molecular machines - including the first molecular motor.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded for work that helps researchers see what biomolecules look like.

"Frank developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope's fuzzy two-dimensional images are analyzed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure", the Nobel announcement said.

Their research is "decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals", according to the academy.

John Savill, professor and CEO at the United Kingdom government-funded Medical Research Council, said electron microscopy has enabled scientists to examine disease molecules up close. The reason? Their powerful electron beam destroys biological material.

Dr Henderson turned to this technique when a protein he was trying to prepare for electron microscopy would not crystallise, and could not, therefore, be examined. In 1990, Henderson was able to use this technique to visualize a protein in 3D down to its atoms with an electron microscope.

Meanwhile, Dubrochet was responsible for developing a method of adding water to the microscope's vacuum and cooling it rapidly, helping biomolecules to retain their original shape. Joachim Frank, a professor at Colombia University in NY, expanded on electron microscopy, making it more flexible and more widely applicable.

The Nobel prizes are named after the Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel.

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