The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 to Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Joachim Frank, Columbia University, New York, USA and Richard Henderson, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK.
The receives the award “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”. This method has moved biochemistry into a new era. Researchers can now freeze biomolecules mid-movement and visualise processes they have never previously seen, which is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals.
Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. 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.
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.
© Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences