Art And Culture

Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Hi-Res Image of Biomolecules

Jacques Dubochet (L), Joachim Frank (C) and Richard Henderson
Jacques Dubochet (L), Joachim Frank (C) and Richard Henderson

Three biophysicists win 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry for imaging molecules of life.

The prize is given to Jacques Dubochet from University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Joachim Frank from Columbia University, New York, the US; and Richard Henderson from MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, the US.

The three scientists are praised for the development of cryo-electron microscopy, which both simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules. This method has moved biochemistry into a new era, according to the website of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, reported.

A picture is a key to understanding. Scientific breakthroughs often build upon the successful visualization of objects invisible to the human eye. However, biochemical maps have long been filled with blank spaces because the available technology has had difficulty imaging much of life’s molecular machinery. Cryo-electron microscopy changes all of this. Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and witness processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.

Electron microscopes were long believed to only be suitable for imaging dead matter, because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material. But in 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. This breakthrough proved the technology’s potential.

Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the fuzzy two-dimensional images of electron microscopes are analyzed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure.

Jacques Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. His challenge was that liquid water evaporates in the vacuum of electron microscopes, making biomolecules collapse. In the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in vitrifying water. He cooled water so rapidly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological sample, allowing biomolecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.

Following the discoveries, the very nut and bolt of electron microscope have been optimized. Researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. In the past few years, scientific literature has been filled with images of everything from proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, to the surface of the Zika virus. Biochemistry is now facing an explosive development and is all set for an exciting future.


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