Technology & Science

Nobel Prize in Chemistry shared by 3 for cryo-electron microscopy

Scientists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developments in electron microscopy.

'This method has moved biochemistry into a new era,' Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says

Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a way to create detailed images of the molecules that drive life — a technology that the Nobel committee said allowed scientists to visualize molecular processes they had never previously seen.

The 9-million kronor ($1.3-million Cdn) prize is shared by:

  • Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne.
  • Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University.
  • Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their method, called cryo-electron microscopy, allows researchers to "freeze biomolecules" mid-movement.

The technology "is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals," it said. "This method has moved biochemistry into a new era."

For instance, the academy said the technique was used when scientists began suspecting the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged children in Brazil. Images of the virus allowed researchers to "start searching for  potential targets" for Zika drugs.

Speaking by phone, Frank told a news conference after the Nobel announcement Wednesday that cryo-electron microscopy means medicine no longer focuses on organs, but "looks at the processes in the cell."

He said the potential use of the method is "immense."

American Chemical Society president Allison Campbell congratulated the winners Wednesday.

"This discovery is like the Google Earth for molecules in that it takes us down to the fine detail of atoms within proteins," Campbell said in a news release. "A picture truly is worth a thousand words, and the laureates' discoveries are invaluable to our understanding of life and the development of new therapeutics to improve people's lives and the health of our planet."

Nobel chemistry committee member Heiner Linke added: "It's the first time that we can see biological molecules in their natural environment and how they actually work together down to the individual atoms."

Some of the 3D images of molecules that can be viewed using this technique. (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Electron microscopes once were thought to be useful only for examining nonliving material because the electron beam destroys biological material. But cryo-technology — freezing material at extremely low temperatures — protected the examined material from damage. 

Dubochet's contribution was to freeze the water in the sample being examined so quickly that it vitrified, forming a kind of glass rather than ice, whose crystalline structure diffracted the electron beam.

Frank developed mathematical models to sharpen fuzzy electron microscope images, and Henderson, in 1990, was able to generate a 3D image of a protein at atom-level resolution.

(Martin Hogbom/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

The annual prize rewards researchers for major advances in studying the infinitesimal bits of material that are the building blocks of life.

Recent prizes have been given to scientists who developed molecular "machines" — molecules with controllable motions — and who mapped how cells repair damaged DNA, leading to improved cancer treatments.

It's the third Nobel announced this week.

  • The medicine prize went to three Americans studying circadian rhythms: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young.
  • The physics prize went to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for detecting gravitational waves.

The literature winner will be named Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday.