Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, Richard Henderson


Dr Richard Henderson, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and his two fellow laureates were honoured for the development of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). As electron microscopy evolved with better lenses and the development of cryotechnology (in which samples were cooled with liquid nitrogen to about - 190 degrees Celsius in order to shield them from the electron beam) his technique managed to produce, in 1990, a bacteriorhodopsin structure at atomic resolution. Toward the end of Wednesday's event, a journalist from Chinese radio asked Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Secretary General Göran K. Hansson about the prevalence of Americans, and what it says about US research environment and policies.

The three scientists will share the $1.1 million prize.

"We are facing a revolution in biochemistry", said Nobel Committee Chairman Sara Snogerup Linse during the announcement.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was award for developing cryo-electro microscopy. Using it, scientists have made high-resolution, 3D images to target cancer drugs and demystify the Zika virus. Though much of this work was done before then, he said joining Columbia was instrumental to meeting colleagues across departments and working with brilliant students who contributed pieces to this "immense puzzle".

The chemistry prize is the third Nobel announced 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.

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Their win is for work on a technique known as cryo-electron microscopy that has allowed scientists to study biological molecules in unprecedented sharpness, not least the Zika virus and proteins thought to be involved in Alzheimer's disease.

By freezing biomolecules mid-movement, scientists can unravel previously unseen processes - a major advance both for basic understanding and the potential development of new drugs. The second challenge is that the electron beam heats up and destroys delicate biological molecules. However, while the electron microscope is good to obtain the atomic structure of, say, a membrane protein, the intense electron beam necessary for high resolution images incinerates biological material. "It underpins every [cryo-electron microscopy] experiment since".

The final step in developing the system begin with Dubochet's success in vitrifying water in the 1980s, cooling it so quickly that it would solidify around a sample, thus allowing biomolecules to maintain their shape - even within a vacuum.

In the early 1930s, physicist Ernst Ruska and engineer Max Knoll invented the electron microscope that could view objects 400 times smaller than what was capable with the naked eye. He used this technique to model the surface of the ribosome, the cell's protein synthesis factory.

"Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable".