Nobel Prize in Chemistry Honors New Technique for Viewing Molecules

Digitally colored TEM of the Zika Virus. This year's Nobel winners look to provide more accurate illustrations of viruses like Zika for future study. CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

Three scientists will share this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a new way to see biomolecules. Jacques Dubochet of Switzerland, Richard Henderson of the UK and Joachim Frank of the US all specialized in cryo-electron microscopy. As the name suggests, the researchers freeze molecules mid-action in order to "visualise processes they have never previously seen," the Nobel press release noted.

BREAKING NEWS The 2017 #NobelPrize in Chemistry is awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank & Richard Henderson.

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 4, 2017

"We are facing a revolution in biochemistry," said Nobel Committee Chairman Sara Snogerup Linse. "Now we can see the intricate details of the biomolecules in every corner of our cells, in every drop of our body fluids. We can understand how they are built and how they act and how they work together in large communities."

The biggest struggle for scientists in producing images of biomolecules is that they've had to model dead material under electron microscopes. Previous techniques also used dyes to see the details but could also compromise the biomaterial itself. Cryo-electron microscopy allows researchers a clean image of how the biomolecules move and interact with one another.

Scientists can best learn how proteins function by seeing an accurate picture of its shape and movements. An accurate image of a virus like Zika, for example, can tell researchers exactly how it attacks a cell. The shortcomings of older observation techniques were frustrations with which this year's winners were all too familiar.

Henderson worked at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England and started as an X-ray crystallographer. He used electron microscopes to get a better view into proteins, but he found that electrons damaged the samples. In 1975, Henderson reconstructed the shape of a protein using scattered electrons.

Frank, a researcher at Columbia University in New York City developed the next advancement. He created a way to capture the images of proteins and grouped them together via computer. By combining many copies of the protein, he could give a clearer image and offer a 3D rendering.

The final technical hurdle was overcome in 2013, when a new type of electron detector came into use.

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 4, 2017

Dubochet combined Frank's technique with quick-freezing them for protection. He put the samples in nitrogen-cooled ethane to prevent water molecules stacking up as with traditional freezing. Dubochet conducted the experiments at minus 196 Celsius (minus 321 Fahrenheit) and that temperature proved cold enough to prevent water molecules from crystallizing.

Linse praised the men for chipping away at the "secrets" of nature.

"Soon there are no more secrets," she said. We are facing a revolution in biochemistry."

The techniques developed by this year's chemistry winners were also applied to this year's winners of the Nobel in physiology and medicine.

Atomic structures of a) protein complex that governs circadian rhythm b) pressure sensor of the type that allows us to hear c) Zika virus

— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 4, 2017

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