The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 has been awarded to three researchers, Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank & Richard Henderson, for their work on imaging the molecules of life.
The three, including Cambridge University’s Richard Henderson, were able to develop a revolutionary new electron microscopy imaging technique that can see these molecules at the atomic level.
“This method has moved biochemistry into a new era,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement awarding the $1.1 million) prize.
“Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualize processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.”
The breakthrough has been compared to being able to actually photograph a person on the Moon from Earth in minute detail.
Traditionally one of the biggest hurdles in using electron microscopes is that the water surrounding these molecules simply evaporates in the vacuum chamber.
Between 1975 and 1986 Joachim Frank developed an imagine processing method which took two blurry 2D images from the electron microscope and combined them to create one sharp 3D model.
It was then in the 90s that Richard Henderson was able to take that a step further and create a 3D image of a protein at an atomic resolution.
As the last piece in the puzzle, Jacques Dubochet found that he could successfully add water to an electron microscope by vitrifying it - flash freezing it so quickly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological molecule, allowing it to retain its natural shape.
It is these three breakthroughs that have led to the technology we have today.
Chemistry is the third of this year’s Nobel Prizes after the winners of the medicine and physics prizes were announced earlier this week.