Stockholm, Oct 4 (IANS) Three scientists have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of an effective method for generating 3D images of the molecules of life.
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson won the prize “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said while announcing the award here on Wednesday.
“This method has moved biochemistry into a new era,” the Academy said.
The application of cryo-electron microscopy is now widespread. For example, 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 visualise the virus.
Over a few months, 3D images of the virus at atomic resolution were generated and researchers could start searching for potential targets for pharmaceuticals.
Dubochet, affiliated with the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Frank with Columbia University in New York and Henderson with MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Britain, have made ground-breaking discoveries that have enabled the development of cryo-electron microscopy.
Over the last few years, numerous astonishing structures of life’s molecular machinery have filled scientific literature.
Salmonella’s injection needle for attacking cells; proteins that confer resistance to chemotherapy and antibiotics; molecular complexes that govern circadian rhythms; light-capturing reaction complexes for photosynthesis and a pressure sensor of the type that allows us to hear are just a few examples of the hundreds of biomolecules that have now been imaged using cryo-electron microscopy.
Electron microscopes were long believed to only be suitable for imaging dead matter because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material.
But in 1990, Henderson, who was born in Scotland, succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a 3D image of a protein at atomic resolution. This breakthrough proved the technology’s potential.
Frank, who was born in Germany, 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 3D structure.
Dubochet, who was born in Switzerland, 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 3D structures of biomolecules, the Academy said.