Three researchers in microscopy inherit the Nobel prize in chemistry

Three researchers in microscopy inherit the Nobel prize in chemistry

Three researchers in microscopy inherit the Nobel prize in chemistry

The prize is given to Jacques Dubochet from University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Joachim Frank from Columbia University, New York, the U.S.; and Richard Henderson from MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, the US. Just looking at these structures has filled in scientific knowledge gaps that existed for years. This was previously thought to be impossible, as the electron beam destroys the biological material.

You're absolutely right, in the old form of electron microscopy you saw the contours, but you didn't see the atoms.

The trio of scientists developed a technique to address these issues.

But these microscopes bombard their targets with high-energy electrons, which typically move biological structure or rip them apart entirely.

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. And without water (a main component of all cells), biological molecules collapse.

But in the years between 1975 and 1986, Frank figured out how to stitch two-dimensional micrographs together to yield a sharp 3D picture. He was unable to crystallize the protein and didn't want to remove it from the membrane and thereby risk altering its structure.

But the image didn't yet have the resolution Henderson wanted.

Frank earned his doctorate in 1970 at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Previous techniques also used dyes to see the details but could also compromise the biomaterial itself.

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Other researchers can use these kinds of images to design drugs that precisely fit into the structures, like a lock and key, to stop infection or to improve a cell's function. He put the samples in nitrogen-cooled ethane to prevent water molecules stacking up as with traditional freezing.

The electron microscope's every nut and bolt has been optimised since these discoveries. Henderson spent years traveling the world to take images of bacteriorhodopsin with best electron microscopes, and finally in 1990, presented a picture of the protein with atomic resolution. The image, while an improvement over past efforts, wasn't quite at the atomic scale yet - that required other advances.

His breakthrough was further developed by German-born scientist Frank, a US citizen, while Dubochet of Switzerland used rapidly frozen water to preserve the natural shape of the biomolecules.

The technique would get still more sophisticated, however.

Now researchers turn to this technology immediately when they want to understand anything biological. This has proved crucial for numerous areas of research, for example, enabling scientists to obtain images of the Zika virus and to visualise proteins that cause antibiotic resistance.

The ability to do all this fundamentally transforms biochemistry, medicine, and our understanding of biology.

The other victor Joachim Frank made the technology applicable in general conditions.

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