Nobel Prize Honors Technique for Seeing Molecules' Details

Martin Luther King woken up by Stockholm's Lucia in 1964

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacques Dubochet (Switzerland), Joachim Frank (US) and Richard Henderson (UK) for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high resolution structure determination of biomolecules in a solution.

Joachim Frank of Columbia University in NY developed an image-processing method that merges many two-dimensional images of a biomolecules to create a sharp three-dimensional picture. The achievement was to preserve the structure of liquid water at a temperature low enough so that it would not evaporate.

Cryo-electron microscopy, the academy explained is "a cool method for imaging the molecules of life". This allowed researchers to use electron microscopes to determine the structures of proteins at much higher resolution than was previously possible. The use of both techniques was, however, subject to limitations imposed by the nature of biomolecules.

Because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material, electron microscopes were long believed to work only when imaging dead matter.

Henderson, 72, is a Scottish biophysicist who has worked at or directed Cambridge University's Laboratory of Molecular Biology since 1973. In a nutshell, that's cryo-electron microscopy.

Joachim Frank's strategy built upon having a computer discriminate between the traces of randomly positioned proteins and their background in a fuzzy electron microscope image.

Dubochet, born in 1942, is an honorary professor of biophysics at Lausanne University and graduated from Basel and Geneva Universities. By being able to see the 3-D structure of, say, a ribosome - a minute structure within a cell that contained RNA - scientists can learn how ribosomes work in something like the Zika virus. The technique made it easier to see through with an electron beam, while also protecting the living molecules from the harshest effects of microscopy. "Knowing this structure opens up the possibility of rational drug design in this area", commented John Hardy, Prof of neuroscience at UCL.

"Normally what I'd do if I was in Cambridge, we will have a party around tea-time in the lab but I expect we'll have it tomorrow instead", said Henderson.

A year ago the Nobel prize in chemistry received three European scientists for the creation of "molecular machines" - the smallest cars in the world. Well, to reach scientific breakthroughs, we must understand our world, including objects at the atomic level that are invisible to the human eye. The benchmark for excellence in the domain of science is the Nobel Prize which is awarded for innovative ventures in Science and this time no exception.

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