Cool way to peer into molecules’ inner workings wins chemistry Nobel Prize

glutamate dehydrogenase

COOL ADVANCE Cryo-electron microscopy, an imaging technique that involves flash freezing molecules to see their structures, has won its inventors the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The technique has dramatically improved so that molecules that once appeared as blobs (left) now appear in all their complex glory (right).

© Martin Högbom/Stockholm Univ.

An imaging technique that lets scientists capture 3-D views of proteins, viruses and other molecules at the atomic scale has won its developers the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Joachim Frank of Columbia University and Richard Henderson of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge will share the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced October 4.

Called cryo-electron microscopy, the imaging technique freezes biological molecules in place and reveals their inner workings.

Applying electron microscopy to biology was a challenge because the technique is done in a vacuum, which can dry out and distort the shape of proteins and other biological molecules. Historically, this kind of microscopy was used to look at nonliving things.

After working on the problem for years, in 1990, Henderson captured the first 3-D image of a protein using an electron microscope. Frank developed a way to combine blurry 2-D images into a sharp 3-D picture, which made the technique more useful for looking at complex proteins. And Dubochet discovered how to freeze water around molecules so rapidly that it couldn’t create crystals that would disrupt the electron beams and distort the images.

Since then, the technique has been honed even further, improving its resolution. It’s been used to capture up-close pictures of the Zika virus, to examine the inner workings of circadian clocks and more.

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