Stockholm, Sweden (BBN) – Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson receive £825,000 prize for developing method for generating 3D images of life-building structures.
The Nobel prize in chemistry has been awarded to three scientists for developing a technique to produce images of the molecules of life frozen in time, reports The Guardian.
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson will receive equal shares of the 9m Swedish kronor (£825,000) prize, which was announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Wednesday.
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 has transformed the field of biochemistry.
Before the breakthrough, electron microscopes were only suitable for imaging dead matter, because the powerful electron beam destroyed biological material. Henderson, a Scottish scientist and professor at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, succeeded in using one of these microscopes to generate the first three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution.
Joachim Frank, a German-born professor at Colombia University in New York, made the technology more generally applicable. Dubochet, who is Swiss and an honorary professor at the University of Lausanne, refined a vitrification technique that allowed biomolecules to be rapidly frozen while retaining their natural shape.
Speaking to journalists after the announcement, Frank said the practical uses for the technique were “immense”.
The resultant imaging technique has allowed scientists to explore the architecture of everything from the proteins that cause antibiotic resistance to the surface of the Zika virus.
Last year the 3D structure of the enzyme producing the amyloid of Alzheimer’s disease was published using this technology. By capturing snapshots of the same system at different time-points, scientists can even stitch together jittery film sequences of biological processes as they unfold.
This has paved the way for both new basic insights into life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.
Prof Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, professor of mammalian development and stem cell biology at the University of Cambridge, described the choice as “wonderful”. “A visual image is the essential component to understanding, often the first one to open our eyes, and so our minds, to a scientific breakthrough,” she said.
Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge whose work has focussed on understanding biological structures, said the technique had made an enormous difference to her field, adding that she had been struck by a talk by Henderson that she attended during her PhD. “It was stunning work,” she said. “It’s a long time ago but it’s brilliant to see the developments finally be rewarded by this year’s award.”
Barry Fuller, professor in surgical sciences at University College London Medical School, said Dubochet is widely known as a “star” in his field. “The technology is aimed … on imaging biomolecules in the life process ‘frozen’ in time – so they are called to immediate halt,” he said.
In the future, Fuller added, understanding the configurations and stability of biomolecules at ultra-low temperatures may help advance efforts in cryobiology, where scientists are focused on how to vitrify human tissue and organs to allow them to be preserved for long durations.
Last year’s prize went to three European chemists for developing “nano-machines”, an advance that paved the way for the world’s first smart materials.
On Monday, three American scientists shared the 2017 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their painstaking work on circadian rhythms and the Nobel prize in chemistry went to another American trio for the first observation of gravitational waves.