Cool microscopy takes 2017 chemistry Nobel

Journalists reading up on their chemistry ahead of the announcement

The cryo-electron microscopy method, developed with Joachim Frank, 77, of New York's Columbia University, and Jacques Dubochet, 75, of Switzerland's University of Lausanne, has implications for medicine shifting focus from organs to processes in cells.

Thanks to the worldwide team's "cool method", which uses electron beams to examine the tiniest structures of cells, "researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen", the Nobel chemistry committee said.

The technique allows scientists to freeze biomolecules in action and "visualise processes they have never previously seen", according to the Nobel statement.

But these microscopes bombard their targets with high-energy electrons, which typically move biological structure or rip them apart entirely.

"We may soon have detailed images of life's complex machinery in atomic resolution". Known as cryo-electron microscopy, it allows researchers to study the structure of biomolecules in high resolution without damaging them for the first time in history. The use of both techniques was, however, subject to limitations imposed by the nature of biomolecules. First, the electron beam itself would prove deadly to biological material.

Richard Henderson, 72, a programme leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, is one of the fathers of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique for making freeze-frame images that is described as the biggest advance in its field for a century. They swapped water with a sugar cocktail, which could withstand the vacuum and systematically tweaked the settings of their microscope to limit the damage caused by the electrons.

"Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable".

Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was also awarded to two persons, Fraser Stoddart and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Ben Feringa "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines". Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope's fuzzy twodimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure. "Those are exactly the people I thought should win the Nobel Prize".

"And as a biologist, I can say that the pictures are attractive", he said. Well, to reach scientific breakthroughs, we must understand our world, including objects at the atomic level that are invisible to the human eye.

The 2017 prize, worth 9 million kronor ($1.1 million), is being announced Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

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