Wednesday, October 8, 2014 6:13 pm
Two Americans and a German won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for laying the foundations of an ultra-powerful microscope that has exposed life at the molecular level.
The tool has revolutionised research into diseases and drug design, the Nobel jury said, as it lauded Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner and Germany’s Stefan Hell.
“Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nano-dimension,” it said.
“Today, nanoscopy is used worldwide and new knowledge of the greatest benefit to mankind is produced on a daily basis.”
One of the laureates, Stefan Hell, was sure the Nobel phone call from Stockholm was a prank until he recognised the voice of a fellow scientist at the other end of the line.
“It was a total surprise, I couldn’t believe it… The first moment I thought it was perhaps a hoax,” the 51-year-old told the Nobel Foundation.
He added that “the scientific community was not very receptive” to his research at first — it was considered “kind of crazy”.
Working separately, the trio overcame a presumed limit on optical enlargement, theorised in 1873 by microscopist Ernst Abbe.
He said the laws of physics meant the resolution of an image would never be better than around 200 nanometres (200 billionths of a metre), which is half the wavelength of light.
Because of this so-called diffraction limit, it was thought, for instance, that the inner workings of a cell would never be clearly observed, preventing a full understanding of how cells function, reproduce or become infected.
“These are discoveries that have been made in spite of the fact that most scientists thought that it would be impossible,” medical biochemist and Nobel Committee member Claes Gustafsson told AFP.
“The strength of the finding is more the way that it opens a door and allows us to ask questions that couldn’t be asked before.”
The basis of the laureates’ work, dating back to pioneering research by Hell in the 1990s, adds fluorescent molecules to a sample to be studied.
A laser beam is directed at the sample to make the molecules glow, while a second laser beam quenches all fluorescence except for a tiny area of interest in the middle.
As a result, objects as small as 20 nanometres are thrown into sharp relief — and are observable in real time.
– ‘No structure too small’ –
Medicine and biology have been the big winners from nanoscopy.
Scientists can now observe the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells and 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 fertilised eggs as these divide into embryos,” the jury said.
The technology, it added, had almost infinite possibilities: “Theoretically there is no longer any structure too small to be studied.”