Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Biomolecule Imaging Pioneers Share Nobel Prize

Today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 to Jacques Dubochet (University of Lausanne, Switzerland) and Joachim Frank (Columbia University, New York, USA), and Richard Henderson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK). The award is given "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution"

Cool microscope technology revolutionises biochemistry

We may soon have detailed images of life’s complex machineries in atomic resolution. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 is awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for the development of cryo-electron microscopy, which both simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules. This method has moved biochemistry into a new era.

A picture is a key to understanding. Scientific breakthroughs often build upon the successful visualization of objects invisible to the human eye. However, biochemical maps have long been filled with blank spaces because the available technology has had difficulty generating images of much of life’s molecular machinery. Cryo-electron microscopy changes all of this. 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.

Electron microscopes were long believed to only be suitable for imaging dead matter, because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material. But in 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. This breakthrough proved the technology’s potential.

Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope’s fuzzy two-dimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure.

Jacques Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. Liquid water evaporates in the electron microscope’s vacuum, which makes the biomolecules collapse. In the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in vitrifying water – he cooled water so rapidly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the biomolecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.

Following these discoveries, the electron microscope’s every nut and bolt have been optimised. The desired atomic resolution was reached in 2013, and researchers can now routinely produce three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. In the past few years, scientific literature has been filled with images of everything from proteins that cause antibiotic resistance, to the surface of the Zika virus. Biochemistry is now facing an explosive development and is all set for an exciting future.

About the Nobel Laureates

Jacques Dubochet, born 1942 in Aigle, Switzerland. Ph.D. 1973, University of Geneva and University of Basel, Switzerland. Honorary Professor of Biophysics, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Joachim Frank, born 1940 in Siegen, Germany. Ph.D. 1970, Technical University of Munich, Germany. Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and of Biological Sciences, Columbia University, New York, USA.

Richard Henderson, born 1945 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ph.D. 1969, Cambridge University, UK. Programme Leader, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?

  • If you talk about imaging molecules in your course, this could be a way to garner student interest—considering that this is a current and ongoing effort in science. I always have a brief "shape is important in biological chemistry and here's what we can see with current tools" because they're going to see all those little odd-shaped rutabaga blobs in illustrations in their textbooks.

  • If you bring up microscopy in your course, perhaps describing the types of microscopy, adding a bit of info on this could help show students that microscopy is still evolving—in exciting ways.

  • Consider using the annual Nobel Prize announcements as a springboard to discuss the process of scientific discovery. 

  • Consider mentioning the other major awards for scientific achievement and discuss what the judges seem to value most about scientific discoveries. The Nobel Prize is the one everyone has heard of, so it's a great place to start.

  • Use the Nobel Prizes (and other awards) over time as a way to keep students aware of the history of, and progress, of human biology. One could also address the global diversity of laureates.  Or the lack of other kinds of diversity among laureates.

Want to know more?

Popular Information 

Scientific Background


Image - 3D structures (pdf 1.4 MB)

Image - Blobology (pdf 8.5 MB)

Image - Dubochet's preparation method (948 kB)

Image - Frank's image analysis (pdf 1 MB)

Cool Animations (literally)

Structure and gating of the nuclear pore complex

Ion gating in the sarcoplasmic reticulum membrane

Antibody structure

Native LDL particles
  • Kumar V, Butcher S, Öörni K, Engelhardt P, Heikkonen J, Kaski K, Ala-Korpela M, Kovanen P

Changes in the water and ion contents of organelles during apoptosis
  • Nolin F, Michel J, Wortham L, Tchelidze P, Banchet V, Lalun N, Terryn C, Ploton D
Adapted from press release at
Click each image for its source/attribution

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