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Nobel Prize in chemistry honors scientists who saw beyond the limits of light

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Three researchers share $1.1 million award for their work in developing nanoscopy

Tim Ereneta / Flickr

Drs. Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work in developing nanoscopy and transcending the limits of optical microscopes. The three scientists will share a reward of 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million). Betzig and Moerner are US citizens, and Dr. Hell is a German citizen.

For years, scientists believed that the resolution of optical microscopy was limited to half a wavelength of light, or 0.2 micrometers. But Hell passed that limit in 2000, when he developed stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy — a method that uses two laser beams to return images of higher resolution than the perceived limit. Betzig and Moerner each developed a second method called single-molecule microscopy, which Betzig demonstrated for the first time in 2006. This method relies on controlling the fluorescence of individual molecules and superimposing images to yield a "dense super-image" at the nano level.

Today, nanoscopy is used to track the movements of individual molecules inside cells, and has opened new doors in the study of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's diseases. It has also been used to study synapses in the brain and to track proteins in fertilized eggs. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences published a more detailed analysis of the laureates' work this morning.