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Nobel Prize

Trio takes chemistry Nobel Prize for ‘cool method’ to freeze and study tiny molecules

Thanks to the team’s work, which uses electron beams to photograph the structures of cells, researchers can routinely produce 3D structures of biomolecules

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 10:04pm

Scientists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson won the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday for 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 revealed previously unseen 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,” the committee said.

Frank, a 77-year-old biochemistry professor at Columbia University in New York, was woken from his sleep when the committee announced the prize in Stockholm, six hours ahead.

“There are so many other discoveries every day, I was in a way speechless,” he said. “It’s wonderful news.”

In the first half of the 20th century, biomolecules – proteins, DNA and RNA – were terra incognita 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 Henderson, now 72, used an electron microscope in 1990 to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution, a groundbreaking discovery that proved the technology’s potential.

Frank 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. Dubochet added the use of water.

Now 75, Dubochet 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.

Every nut and bolt in the electron microscope has been optimised after these discoveries. The required atomic resolution was reached in 2013, and researchers can now routinely produce 3D structures of biomolecules, according to the Nobel chemistry committee.

Dubochet is an honorary professor of biophysics at the University of Lausanne, and Henderson is a professor at a molecular biology laboratory at Cambridge University.

“Normally what I’d do if I was in Cambridge, we will have a party around tea time in the lab, but I expect we’ll have it tomorrow instead,” Henderson said.

The trio will share the prize money of 9 million Swedish kronor (US$1.1 million).