Nobel Prize Honors Technique for Seeing Molecules' Details

Cryo-electron microscopy, the Nobel committee said, "has moved biochemistry into a new era", because "a picture is a key to understanding". "Richard was always good in getting younger people to develop their own careers", says Schertler, who also completed his postdoc with Henderson.

The question was whether the method could be generalised: would it be possible to use an electron microscope to generate high-resolution 3D images of proteins that were randomly scattered in the sample and oriented in different directions? The Royal Swedish Academy has already awarded prizes in physics and medicine.

The three recipients will share a grant of United States $1.1 million.

Nobel chemistry committee member Heiner Linke added: "It's the first time that we can see biological molecules in their natural environment and how they actually work together down to the individual atoms".

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The three scientists developed a way to create three-dimensional (3D) images of biological molecules - images with height, width and depth.

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

The Nobel prize in Chemistry is the third of those being announced this year.

A British scientist has received a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for helping to pioneer a "revolutionary" technique for studying the molecular machinery of life.

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The scientists were able to optimize the microscope to provide three-dimensional structures of biomolecules, from the surface of the Zika virus to proteins that cause antibiotic resistance.

During the same decade, Frank, of Columbia University in NY, and his colleagues developed image-processing software to make sense of the fuzzy images that are produced when an electron microscope is aimed at a protein, and to convert these two-dimensional blurs into 3D molecular structures. 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. The problem with freezing biological samples is that ice crystals diffract the electron beam, blurring the image. Well, to reach scientific breakthroughs, we must understand our world, including objects at the atomic level that are invisible to the human eye.

Henderson took a major step forward when he placed a bacterial cell membrane containing millions of molecules called bacteriorhodopsin into an electron microscope. Henderson succeeded in 1975 to work around the limitations of electron microscopy, by using weaker beams through the molecules and essentially filling in the gaps in the image by completing the regular pattern assumed by the protein, according to the Nobel committee.

"Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable". The technique allows researchers to see the details of biological molecules like proteins, DNA, RNA, and viruses in ways that were impossible before. The prizes for Literature, Peace and Economics will be awarded in the coming days.

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