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

Nobel chemistry prize awarded for molecular machines which repair damaged DNA

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution".

Dubochet, who is now retired, is Swiss; Frank, of Columbia University, New York, is German, and Henderson, of the MRC laboratory of molecular biology in Cambridge, is Scottish. The introduction of Direct Electron Detectors in electron microscopes in 2012-13 turned out to be a powerful tool for scientists as they encountered the challenge of the Zika virus that spread rapidly across various countries in 2015-16.

Yesterday, three American scientists won the 2017 Nobel prize in physics for research that led to the first observations of gravitational waves - a breakthrough Prof Olga Botner, a member of the Nobel committee for physics, described as "a discovery that shook the world".

"This method started in the biochemistry of a new era", said jury.

Cryo-electron microscopy gets around two major challenges when studying large biological molecules with a transmission electron microscope.

"Normally what I'd do if I was in Cambridge, we will have a party around tea-time in the lab but I expect we'll have it tomorrow instead", Henderson said.

Their techniques have recently let us see in unprecedented detail the surface of the Zika virus, bacterial proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, and tumour cell proteins that let cancers become resistant to chemotherapy. It was shown that the water evaporates in the vacuum present in the electron microscope.

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The scientists built on each other's achievements to reach that goal, and it began with Frank who, between 1975 and 1986, developed an image processing method that analyzed and merged an electron microscope's two-dimensional images into a clear three-dimensional structure.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was award for developing cryo-electro microscopy. Henderson had attempted to use the standard X-ray crystallography of the time to examine bacteriorhodopsin, a protein used by a class of single-celled microorganisms most commonly found in the intestines.

In order to understand how DNA issues the recipes for proteins or why one drug works but another one does not, biologists need to be able to follow the complex movements of molecules taking place in every cell.

The trio was presented with the prize money of 9 million Swedish crowns ($1.1 million) which will be split into three equals.

For full coverage of the Nobel Prize announcements follow our colleagues at The Local Sweden.

Winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson (from L to R) are shown on a screen at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 4, 2017.

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