The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to confer the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 to three scientists for developing a technique to produce detailed images of life’s complex molecular machinery.
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson have thereby received a £825,000 prize for developing an effective method for generating 3D images of life-building structures.
The three scientists will receive equal share of the 9m Swedish kronor (£825,000) prize, which was announced by the academy in Stockholm last week.
The researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualize the 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 technique they developed, called cryo-electron microscopy, has allowed the structure of biomolecules to be studied in high-resolution for the first time, an advance that revolutionized the field of biochemistry.
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.