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Peering into Life Itself: 2017 Chemistry Nobel  

By Shlomo Maital

   Some Nobel prizes are awarded to those whose research helps others do research. This year’s Chemistry Nobel (according to the Nobel Committee) is awarded to Richard Henderson, Joachim Frank and Jacques Dubochet:

“…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 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.”

   Each of the three Nobel winners contributed:

  • In 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. (Until then it was thought that living tissue could not be analyzed with an electron microscope). 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 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.

The ability to clearly see the structure of molecules and photograph it has immense value.

       ….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.

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2019
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