Scientists awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry for biomolecular imaging

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

Jacques Dubochet, of Switzerland, Joachim Frank, born in Germany but now at Columbia University, and Richard Henderson, a British scientist at Cambridge, will each equally split the prize. 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.

The prizes are named after Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and have been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace, in accordance with his will. The three laureates will equally split the $1.1 million in prize money.

"We are facing a revolution in biochemistry", said Nobel Committee Chairman Sara Snogerup Linse. Their method is called cryo-electron microscopy.

The three scientists developed a way to create three-dimensional (3D) images of biological molecules - images with height, width and depth.

"I thought the chances of a Nobel Prize were minuscule because there are so many other innovations and discoveries that happen nearly every day", he said.

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This year's winners of the Physics and Physiology or Medicine Prizes were announced earlier this week.

We asked Professor Claes Gustafsson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry and a researcher at the Institution for Biomedicine at Gothenburg University, to help us understand how this works.

Through cryo-electron microscopy, they developed a method to freeze biomolecules which enables them to study their structures and processes, The Nobel Prize's official Twitter account explained.

The development, it said, "is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals".

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

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In 1990, Henderson used an electron microscope to create a 3-D image of a protein at atomic resolution, a breakthrough because previously electron microscopes were thought to only be able to capture images of dead matter, since the electron beam was so strong it would have destroyed biological material.

It was mentioned in the presentation that this technique has transformed electro-microscopy from something that could essentially show the outline of bio-molecules, to something capable of showing the details and intricacies. The problem with freezing biological samples is that ice crystals diffract the electron beam, blurring the image.

Together the work of all three led to a burgeoning new field. The protein, which uses light energy to move proteins across a cell membrane, proved unsuitable for crystallography.

"After Joachim Frank presented the strategy for his general image processing method in 1975, a researcher wrote: 'If such methods were to be perfected, then, in the words of one scientist, the sky would be the limit.'
Now we are there - the sky is the limit".

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