Published: Thu, October 05, 2017
Medicine | By Daryl Nelson

Scientists who developed method to visualize biomolecules win Nobel Prize in chemistry

Scientists who developed method to visualize biomolecules win Nobel Prize in chemistry

Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded the prize on 4 October for their work in developing developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique that fires beams of electrons at proteins - frozen in solution - to deduce the biomolecules' structure.

This has been "decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals", it added. This causes surrounding water to evaporate, and the molecules being studied collapse and lose their normal structure.

Henderson's portion of the prize was awarded for his 1990 breakthrough in imaging with an electron microscope, using the device to produce a 3-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. At first the images produced, though useful, were somewhat shapeless - leading cryo-electron microscopy to be dubbed "blobology". "The practical use is enormous", he says. The Noble Prize rewards the scientists for the influential advancements in studying the microscopic bits of material which are the elementary units of life.

Born in Scotland in 1945, Henderson did a BSc in physics at the University of Edinburgh before completing a PhD in molecular biology at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1969. First, the molecules exist naturally in water, the vapour from which destroys the vacuum required to run the microscope.

The method means that, for example, molecules in bacteria and viruses - such as the Zika virus - can be examined under a microscope in their native, undamaged state. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope's fuzzy twodimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure.

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Dubochet, 75, is a Swiss biophysicist who now conducts his research at University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland. But Hansson pointed out that scientists at the LMB, which offers the same kind of freedom, have won an extraordinary 15 Nobel Prizes.

The three winners figured out how to freeze, preserve and then see live structures, while not getting such tiny things mixed up with the background. The technique made it easier to see through with an electron beam, while also protecting the living molecules from the harshest effects of microscopy.

Three researchers based in the USA, United Kingdom and Switzerland have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developments in electron microscopy.

"Knowing this structure opens up the possibility of rational drug design in this area", Hardy said.

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.

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