The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, announced on October 8, was awarded jointly to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner.
The prize is given for “the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” states the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Optical microscopy has been held back for a long time by a presumed limitation: that it would never obtain a
better resolution than half the wavelength of light. The Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2014 have circumvented this limitation and their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension. Scientists can visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells, they can see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain. They can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases as they aggregate; they follow individual proteins in fertilized eggs as these divide into embryos.
Two separate principles are rewarded, according to the academy. One enables the method stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, developed by Stefan Hell in 2000. Two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample, nanometre for nanometre, yields an image with a resolution better than Abbe’s stipulated limit.
Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working separately, laid the foundation for the second method, single-molecule microscopy. A method that relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting just a few interspersed glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel. In 2006 Eric Betzig utilized this method for the first time.
Eric Betzig is Group Leader at Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA, USA. Stefan Hell is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, and Division head at the German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany. William E. Moerner is Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.