Biophysicists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing new and better ways to see molecules.
The Nobel committee praised the trio in its announcement Wednesday “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” Cryo-electron microscopy is “a cool method for imaging the materials of life,” said Nobel committee member Göran K. Hansson from Stockholm. The development allows scientists to visualize proteins and other biological molecules at the atomic level.
Dubochet, 75, a Swiss citizen, is a professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Frank, 77, born in Germany and now a U.S. citizen, is a Columbia University professor in New York. Henderson, 72, of Scotland, works at Cambridge University in Britain.
To see the structure of molecules at ultrahigh resolution, scientists must hold molecules in place in their natural configuration. Other microscopic techniques, such as X-ray crystallography, are far more rigid than cryo-electron microscopy.
What is cryo-electron microscopy?
“Cryo”, short for cryogenic refers to very low temperatures. Though the actual temperature is not well defined, it is below minus 150°C. In the context of electron microscopy, it refers to the fact that the object to be imaged is frozen to such low temperatures to facilitate being studied under the beam of the electron microscope.
This method is so effective that even in recent times, it has been used to image the elusive Zika virus: When researchers began to suspect that the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged newborns in Brazil, they turned to cryo-EM to visualise the virus. Over a few months, three dimensional (3D) images of the virus at atomic resolution were generated and researchers could start searching for potential targets for pharmaceuticals.