Developed over decades by laureates Jacques Dubochet at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Joachim Frank at Columbia University, and Richard Henderson at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom, cryo-electron microscopy is a rare feat of science and engineering that makes things both simpler and better.
Through cryo-electron microscopy, they developed a method to freeze biomolecules which enables them to study their structures and processes, The Nobel Prize's official Twitter account explained. This keeps the molecules wet and stops water from evaporating into the vacuum. Henderson succeeded in 1975 to work around the limitations of electron microscopy, by using weaker beams through the molecules and essentially filling in the gaps in the image by completing the regular pattern assumed by the protein, according to the Nobel committee. This allowed researchers to use electron microscopes to determine the structures of proteins at much higher resolution than was previously possible.
Electron microscopes once were thought to be useful only for examining nonliving material because the electron beam destroys biological material.
Henderson, a professor at the Molecular Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom, produced the first high-resolution model of a protein, bacteriorhodopsin, using electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) in 1990.
Simply freezing the samples so that water turned to ice was not a solution, as Dubochet himself pointed out today, speaking of the impetus for his project.
75-year-old Jacques Dubochet, was born in Switzerland, and is now a honorary professor of biophysics the Universite Lausanne.
John Hardy, professor of neuroscience at University College London, described the development of cryo-electron microscopy as "transformative".
Over the last few years, researchers have published atomic structures of numerous complicated protein complexes, such as this one that governs circadian rhythm (left), a pressure sensor pressure in the ear used for hearing (middle) and the Zika virus (right).
The president of the American Chemical Society says the microscope imaging technique honored by this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize is like Google Earth for molecules.
"I think it's something for the future", Campbell said. As electron microscopes have improved over the intervening years (in part thanks to Henderson's efforts) cryo-electron microscopy can now image biological molecules at the atomic level.
"Knowing this structure opens up the possibility of rational drug design in this area", Hardy said.
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson were jointly awarded the prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Three researchers based in the USA, United Kingdom and Switzerland have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy.