The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on October 4 to three European scientists. These are pioneers in the field of cryo-electron microscopy which allows for the three-dimensional representations of DNA, RNA, and other biological molecules.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry and its Three Winners
In announcing the award, The Royal Academy of Sciences said that the cryo-electron microscopy work of Swiss-born Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank, a German-born United States citizen who teaches at Columbia University and Richard Henderson of Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, allows molecules to be observed and analyzed to the level of the atoms of which they are composed. The technology they invented can snap pictures of the particles even as they are moving.
Researchers are just now becoming aware of this method and are beginning to utilize it in their efforts to unlock the mysteries of molecular structures.
The razor-sharp images of the molecules have helped scientists and medical researchers understand the processes that occur inside molecules. Many of them had previously been invisible, for example, those responsible for the Zika virus. The discovery could lead to the development of new drugs, vaccines, and industrial chemicals in the future.
Likening the discovery to “Google Earth for molecules,” the process allows scientists to map out the shape of a molecular protein, which is critical in understanding how it functions and attacks other cells.
In the past, the protein structure of biological molecules was determined by stacking dozens of them into crystals. X-ray images were then used to figure out the shape of the molecules. This method was often unsuccessful because numerous proteins are just too fragile and unorganized to crystallize.
The $1.1 million Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be split among the three winners. Also announced last week were the Nobel winners in medicine, physics, literature, and peace.
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