Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Hi-Res Image of Biomolecules

Todd Singleton
October 6, 2017

Scots-born Henderson is a program leader at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Britain's University of Cambridge.

It turned out that Frank's algorithm could be directly applied to a technique for imaging biological molecules that had been developed independently in 1982 by Dubochet. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for their venture on high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.

Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson were announced the winners by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

The three recipients will share a grant of U.S. $1.1 million.

"Now that we can see the intricate details of every drop of our body fluids, we can understand how they are built and how they act and how they work together", Sara Snogerup Linse, chair of the 2017 chemistry Nobel committee, said at a news conference.

He explained that cryo-electron microscopy emerged back in the 1980s, and has been actively developing over the recent years due to the improvement in tool and computing platforms, including supercomputers.

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

The prize is therefore another example of the chemistry Nobel honoring research that is squarely within biology. Each has contributed to the development of cryoelectron microscopy, a technique that permits the shapes of biological molecules, such as proteins, to be seen without numerous difficulties involved in preparing them for older techniques, such as X-ray crystallography or conventional electron microscopy. As the name suggests, the researchers freeze molecules mid-action in order to "visualise processes they have never previously seen", the Nobel press release noted.

Enter Joachim Frank: He used math and computers to decipher the randomness in protein structures. However, in 1990 Henderson managed to successfully produce a 3D image of a protein at an atomic resolution. He completed a PhD on electron microscopy in 1970 at the Technical University of Munich. First, the electron beam itself would prove deadly to biological material. One of the applications of the three technology will be in medicine in health. Joachim Frank, a professor at Colombia University in NY, expanded on electron microscopy, making it more flexible and more widely applicable.

The puzzle: electron microscopes were deadly to living matter in two different ways. He found that by rapidly cooling a specimen before putting it in an electron microscope, water would form a solid shell without freezing, keeping biological structures in their original shape while they are scanned. The benchmark for excellence in the domain of science is the Nobel Prize which is awarded for innovative ventures in Science and this time no exception.

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