STOCKHOLM • Scientists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry yesterday for developing cryo-electron microscopy, a simpler and better method for imaging tiny, frozen molecules.
Thanks to the international team's new "cool method", which uses electron beams to photograph the tiniest structures of cells, "researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules", the Nobel chemistry committee said.
"Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals."
The ultra-sensitive imaging method allows molecules to be flash-frozen and studied in their natural form, without the need for dyes or fixatives. It has laid bare never-before-seen details of the machinery inside cells, viruses and proteins, and has shed light on enzymes involved in diseases such as Alzheimer's.
"When researchers began to suspect that the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged newborns in Brazil, they turned to cryo-EM (electron microscopy) to visualise the virus," said the committee.
In the first half of the 20th century, biomolecules - proteins, DNA and RNA - were unknown territory on the map of biochemistry.
Because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material, electron microscopes were long believed to work only when imaging dead matter. But Professor Henderson, now 72, used an electron microscope in 1990 to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution, a groundbreaking discovery which proved the technology's potential.
Professor Frank, 77, made the technology widely usable between 1975 and 1986 as he developed a method for processing more detail in the electron microscope's fuzzy two-dimensional images to reveal a sharp 3D structure.
Meanwhile, Professor Dubochet, now 75, discovered in the 1980s how to cool water so quickly that it solidifies in liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the molecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.
The electron microscope's every nut and bolt had been optimised after these discoveries. The required atomic resolution was reached in 2013, and researchers can now routinely produce 3-D structures of biomolecules.
Prof Dubochet, a Swiss citizen, works at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Prof Frank, born in Germany, is at Columbia University in New York. Prof Henderson, of Scotland, works at Cambridge University in Britain. The trio will share the prize money of 9 million Swedish kronor (S$1.5 million).
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST