The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is often the most unusual sounding award to those that are not savvy with the technicalities of it. This year is no different, as the 2017 accolade has been given to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson, a trio of biophysicists, for “developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.”
It’s essentially a way to view molecules in unprecedented, high-resolution 3D. From the molecules of life – including the protein that can dominate biological clocks – to more synthetic ones, it freezes them into place and allows the researchers to examine them without causing them significant damage, as plenty of other observation methods do – including the electron microscope, which burns them.
“The problem is that if you freeze an object, ice crystals diffract the electron beam and distort the image,” a member of the Nobel Committee explained during the announcement. “But some thought that they could freeze the sample fast enough to not allow it to form ice crystals, [to make] something called vitrified [glassy] water.”
Think of Han Solo being preserved in carbonite. It’s not quite like that, but that sci-fi method of high-res preservation certainly kept him in an immaculate condition over time.
The work of the three pioneers that now share the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry involved not only realizing the potential of this freezing technique, but the construction of it. Ever since it first appeared, it’s gone from strength to strength.
Most recently, it gained fame as the technique that allowed the highest resolution imaging of the Zika virus. In just a few months, this nanoscale threat’s atomic surface was revealed, allowing the world to begin to conjure up an unprecedentedly rapid biomedical response.
Far from merely taking snapshots of the invisible world, the technique can also be used to capture molecules as they’re moving. If enough individual movements are captured, scientists will be able to essentially create miniature movies of them reacting to their environment.
The CVs of the three winners are both storied and idiosyncratic. Dubochet, hailing from Switzerland, is an honorary professor at the University of Lausanne, whose personal bio is certainly more humorous than the average academic’s. The frequent award-winning Scotland-born Henderson heads up a molecular structural studies group at the University of Cambridge.
Frank, a German-born professor at Columbia University in New York City, was apparently woken up this morning by the news of his Nobel Prize.
Speaking via telephone at the announcement ceremony, he said that he is “fully overwhelmed,” and always thought his “chances of winning were minuscule” because of all the amazing innovations and discoveries that happen all over the world “every single day.”