A revolutionary technique dubbed cryo-electron microscopy, which has shed light on the Zika virus and an Alzheimer’s enzyme, earned scientists Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday.
Thanks to the international 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 committee said.
The ultra-sensitive imaging method allows molecules to be flash-frozen and studied in their natural form, without the need for dyes. It has laid bare never-before-seen details of the tiny protein machines that run all cells.
“When researchers began to suspect that the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged newborns in Brazil, they turned to cryo-EM (electron microscopy) to visualise the virus,” the committee said.
In the first half of the 20th century, biomolecules — proteins, DNA and RNA — were terra incognita on the map of biochemistry.
Because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material, electron microscopes were long thought to be useful only to study dead matter.
Mr Henderson used an electron microscope in 1990 to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution, a groundbreaking discovery which proved the technology’s potential.
Mr Frank made it widely usable between 1975 and 1986, developing a method to transform the electron microscope’s fuzzy two-dimensional images into sharp, 3-D composites.
Mr Dubochet added water. He discovered in the 1980s how to cool water so quickly that it solidifies in liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the molecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum.