Three European-born scientists share Nobel Prize in Chemistry

05 Oct 2017


Three European-born scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a new way to precisely develop three-dimensional images of biological molecules like proteins, DNA and RNA.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 has been awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for the development of cryo-electron microscopy, which both simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday announced its decision to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 to Jacques Dubochet (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Joachim Frank (Columbia University, New York, USA) and Richard Henderson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution"

The three Nobel Laurates will share the prize money of 9 million Swedish krona, equally.

Their work has helped scientists to assess processes within cells that were previously invisible, and has led to better understanding of viruses like Zika. Their techniques can be of great use in the development of drugs to treat diseases.

This cool microscope technology has moved biochemistry into a new era and it will now be possible to soon have detailed images of life's complex machineries in atomic resolution, the Nobel Prize Committee said.

Available technology has had difficulty generating biochemical images of much of life's molecular machinery. Cryo-electron microscopy changes all of this. 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.

Electron microscopes were long believed to only be suitable for imaging dead matter, because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material. But in 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. This breakthrough proved the technology's potential.

Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope's fuzzy two dimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure.

Jacques Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. Liquid water evaporates in the electron microscope's vacuum, which makes the biomolecules collapse. In the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in vitrifying water – he cooled water so rapidly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the biomolecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.

Following these discoveries, the electron microscope's every nut and bolt have been optimised. The desired atomic resolution was reached in 2013, and researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. In the past few years, scientific literature has been filled with images of everything from proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, to the surface of the Zika virus. Biochemistry is now facing an explosive development and is all set for an exciting future.

Jacques Dubochet was born in 1942 in Aigle, Switzerland. An Honorary Professor of Biophysics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, he studied at the University of Geneva and University of Basel, Switzerl and obtained a Ph.D  in 1973.

Joachim Frank was born in 1940 in Siegen, Germany. A Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Biological Sciences at Columbia University, New York, USA, he obtained a Ph.D from the Technical University of Munich, Germany, in 1970.

Richard Henderson was born in 1945 in Edinburgh, Scotland. A Programme Leader at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, he obtained a Ph.D from Cambridge University, UK in 1969.

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