Scientists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded the 2017 Nobel Chemistry Prize for cryo-electron microscopy, a simpler and better method for imaging tiny, frozen molecules.
Thanks to their team’s new “cool method”, involving electron beams to photograph bits of cells, “researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of bio-molecules”, the Nobel chemistry committee said.
“Researchers can now freeze bio-molecules mid-movement and visualize 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 committee added.
“Cryo”, short for cryogenic refers to very low temperatures. Though the actual temperature is not well defined, it is below minus 150°C.
In the context of electron microscopy, it refers to the fact that the object to be imaged is frozen to such low temperatures to facilitate being studied under the beam of the electron microscope.
This method allows bio-molecules to be kept frozen in their natural state without the need for dyes or fixatives.
It is used study the tiniest details of cell structures, viruses and proteins.
“When researchers began to suspect that the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged newborns in Brazil, they turned to cryo-electron microscopy to visualize the virus,” the committee said.
The prize comes with nine million Swedish kronor (around USD 1.1 million or 943,100 euros).