Three share £830000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for electron microscope breakthrough

Laverne Mann
October 6, 2017

The tool has "moved biochemistry into a new era", says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize. The new technology is revealing secrets of how biology works on molecular and microscopic levels and is essential for developing new medications.

You know all those images of the Zika virus that make it look more like a piece of art than a killer microbe?

The three were honored for developing "cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution", by the Nobel Foundation. Because molecules are flash-frozen, they are caught in a variety of states, allowing researchers to assemble these pictures into movies that recreate their motion.

Electron microscopes were once thought to be useful only for examining non-living objects because their electron beams destroy biological material. Unlike normal microscopes, which use light, beams of electrons can illuminate the tiniest of details in a structure, down the location of individual atoms.

The trio of scientists developed a technique to address these issues. Frank succeeded in merging two fuzzy images of a molecule to get a three-dimensional image.

"I am particularly pleased that Jacques Dubochet has been recognised as the key person who kick-started the field with his method of rapid-freezing in the early 1980s, a crucial advance". And without water (a main component of all cells), biological molecules collapse. Each group is then processed to create a set of much sharper images. The protein was protected by a membrane, so didn't need to be kept in water.

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Scientists can best learn how proteins function by seeing an accurate picture of its shape and movements.

Frank, a researcher at Columbia University in New York City developed the next advancement.

Previous techniques often required the use of dyes or fixatives to help see these molecules. Over a few months, threedimensional (3D) images of the virus at atomic resolution were generated and researchers could start searching for potential targets for pharmaceuticals. But, he realized, if the water were to cool extremely rapidly to -196 ° Celsius - in ethane cooled by liquid nitrogen - it would solidify without forming ice crystals, instead becoming vitreous, or glassy. Essentially, he turned it into glass. Together, these discoveries have not only benefitted scientific research but have optimised the strengths of electron microscopes.

Cro-electron microscopy has been used to capture images of Salmonella's "injection needle" for attacking cells, proteins involved in antibiotic resistance and the molecular structures governing circadian rhythm - the subject of this year's medicine and physiology Nobel.

The new image (right) was taken at true atomic resolution.

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

Other reports by MaliBehiribAe

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