NEW YORK — Three researchers won a Nobel Prize on Wednesday for developing a microscope technique that lets scientists see exquisite details of the molecules that drive life — basically providing a front-row seat to study these tiny performers in their biological dance.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said molecules can be captured down to the level of their atoms, and snapshots can catch them in mid-movement. That can help reveal how they interact.
“This method has moved biochemistry into a new era,” the academy said in awarding its chemistry prize to Switzerland’s Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, German-born U.S. citizen Joachim Frank at New York’s Columbia University, and Briton Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
The detailed images may pave the way for developing new medicines, vaccines and industrial chemicals, but experts said such payoffs are largely in the future.
“This is a technique that is just starting to find its way into the research community,” said Allison A. Campbell, president of the American Chemical Society. It was recently used to reveal the structure of the Zika virus.
The method is called cryo-electron microscopy. It’s like “Google Earth for molecules,” Campbell said, because it “allows the scientist to zoom in down to the fine detail (giving) that fine resolution that you want to have.”
Other methods have been used before to determine structures of some biological molecules, but they run up against fundamental limitations. The three winners of the $1.1 million prize adapted another technique, electron microscopy, which uses a beam of electrons rather than ordinary light to inspect samples.
Between 1975 and 1986, Frank developed mathematical models to turn fuzzy two-dimensional images into sharp, three-dimensional ones. Henderson, in 1990, was able to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atom-level resolution, showing the technology’s potential.
Dubochet, in the early 1980s, found a way to cool the water in a biological sample so quickly that it solidified without forming the ice crystals that can disrupt the electron beam.
Those early advances were followed by others that have greatly improved the technique, the Nobel committee said.
“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,” said Nobel chemistry committee member Heiner Linke.