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From left, Sara Snogerup Linse, chairman of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry, Goran K. Hansson, secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and Peter Brzezinski, member of the Nobel Committee, sit during a press conference as they announce - Jacques Dubochet - from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Joachim Frank from Columbia University, USA and Richard Henderson, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, in England as the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry rewards researchers for major advances in studying the infinitesimal bits of material that are the building blocks of life. (Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency via AP)

Three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry this year for contributions leading to the culmination of the cryo-electron microscope, seen as a revolution in atomic chemistry.

Jacques Dubochet, of Switzerland, Joachim Frank, born in Germany but now at Columbia University, and Richard Henderson, a British scientist at Cambridge, will each equally split the prize.

The three each made a distinct contribution to the development of the microscopy technique since the 1970s, which has coalesced over the last decade to become a groundbreaking tool for biology at the tiniest scales.

“We are facing a revolution in biochemistry,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, the Nobel committee chair, who is also a professor at Lund University. “Soon, there are no more secrets. Now, we can see the intricate details of the biomolecules in every corner of our cells – every drop of our body fluids.”

The three scientists made contributions to different components of the cryo-EM technique, which reached a new level of clarity and resolution in 2013.

The puzzle: electron microscopes were deadly to living matter in two different ways. First, the electron beam itself would prove deadly to biological material. Second, the vacuum required for the microscopic technique would also dry out living molecules.

Dubochet was the first in the 1980s to successfully vitrify water, cooling it so quickly with ethane that had been chilled by liquid nitrogen that it formed a kind of glass instead of natural ice crystals. The technique made it easier to see through with an electron beam, while also protecting the living molecules from the harshest effects of microscopy.

Henderson was the first to make actual observations through electron microscopy, developed in 1930 but infrequently considered for its viability in observing living matter. Henderson had attempted to use the standard X-ray crystallography of the time to examine bacteriorhodopsin, a protein used by a class of single-celled microorganisms most commonly found in the intestines. Henderson succeeded in 1975 to work around the limitations of electron microscopy, by using weaker beams through the molecules and essentially filling in the gaps in the image by completing the regular pattern assumed by the protein, according to the Nobel committee. By 1990, the scientist published an atomic-resolution model of the protein.

Also in 1975, Frank had determined a theoretical strategy to improve imaging: a mathematical method to combine many two-dimensional images of the electron microscope into a cohesive, three-dimensional composite. Frank developed his algorithms for the computing software in 1981, and he published a model of a ribosome surface in the mid-1980s.

© Martin Högbom/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The three gradually came together. In 1991, Frank used Dubochet’s vitrification method and his image calculations, producing a 3-D structure. But the images remained fuzzy and indistinct – what was sometimes dismissed as “blobology.”

But the refinements continued, and the final improvement was an improved electron detector in 2013.

The technology was instrument in better understanding the Zika and Ebola viruses. The Nobel Committee said the cryo-EM possibilities meant the “sky is the limit” for science.

“Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson have, through their research, brought ‘the greatest benefit to mankind,’” the Royal Swedish Academy of Science concluded in their statement today. “Each corner of the cell can be captured in atomic detail and biochemistry is all set for an exciting future.”

“It’s very rewarding to see the objects you work on,” said Peter Brzezinski, one of the members of the Nobel Prize committee, who is also a chemist at Stockholm University. “I think now there’s an explosion of research.”

Frank, like many Nobel winners fielding calls first thing in the day, was ecstatic with the news.

“Normally, my dog wakes me early in the morning,” he said. “But today it was the Nobel Prize!”

The three scientists will equally split the 9 million Swedish krona award.

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