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Scientists who developed method to visualize biomolecules win Nobel Prize in chemistry

‘This method has moved biochemistry into a new era.’

This image shows the level of resolution reached thanks to cryo-electron microscopy.
Image by Martin Hogbom/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Today, three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work developing a new method to image biomolecules, including viruses like Zika, in incredibly high resolution. “This method has moved biochemistry into a new era,” the prize committee said. The recipients are Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank of Columbia University, and Richard Henderson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK.

The technique, called cryo-electron microsopy, allows scientists to freeze biomolecules mid-movement and “visualize processes they have never previously seen,” according to the prize committee. That will help us understand how biomolecules act and interact with each other — which is key for finding new drugs, as well as understanding chemistry at its most basic levels.

Henderson was the first one to use an electron microscope to generate a 3D image of a protein at atomic resolution in 1990, showing that the technique could be used on biomolecules and not just dead matter. Between 1975 and 1986, Frank developed a new method to process electron microscopes’ images into a more sharp, 3D structure. That made the technology generally applicable. And in the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in adding water to biological samples, so that they can retain their natural shape in the electron microscope’s vacuum instead of collapsing. Together these discoveries have made today’s cryo-electron microscopy possible.

The technique has continuously been improved and in 2013, it reached its desired atomic resolution, the prize committee said. Today, researchers routinely snap 3D images of biomolecules.

"We are facing a revolution in biochemistry," said Nobel Committee Chairman Sara Snogerup Linse during the announcement, according to CNN. "Now we can see the intricate details of the biomolecules in every corner of our cells, in every drop of our body fluids. We can understand how they are built and how they act and how they work together in large communities."

"Soon there are no more secrets," she said.