Nobel Prize 2017: Cryo-Electron Microscopy Developers Trio Honoured With Chemistry Award

Herbert Rhodes
October 5, 2017

An imaging technique that lets scientists capture 3-D views of proteins, viruses and other molecules at the atomic scale has won its developers the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Cryo-electron microscopy is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals, the academy added.

Henderson earned his doctorate from Cambridge University in Britain in 1969, and later became the program leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge.

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded Tuesday to three USA astrophysicists for their contributions to the first detections of gravitational waves. In 1990, Henderson was able to use this technique to visualize a protein in 3D down to its atoms with an electron microscope. Because molecules are flash-frozen, they are caught in a variety of states, allowing researchers to assemble these pictures into movies that recreate their motion.

Three researchers won a Nobel Prize on Wednesday for developing a microscope technique that lets scientists see exquisite details of the molecules that drive life - basically providing a front-row seat to study these tiny performers in their biological dance. In this method, the two-dimensional images of the electron microscope and merged to reveal a fine three-dimensional arrangement.

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In the Zika virus, for example, scientists identified unique parts of the pathogen's structure using cryo-electron microscopy, identifying a potential target for a vaccine. By dropping samples in ethane cooled by liquid nitrogen to -196 degrees Celsius, Dubochet created breathtakingly sharp images.

Technological advances by Dubochet and Frank made atomic-level resolution imaging with EM possible. The three laureates will equally split the $1.1 million in prize money.

Chemistry was the second prize mentioned in Alfred Nobel's 1895 will and was the most important of the sciences for his own work, according to the official website of the Nobel Prize.

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.

"And as a biologist, I can say that the pictures are attractive", he said.

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