Science, at its core, is a process. New advances in technology are as important as new discoveries they lead to. How can you understand a molecule, for example, if you can’t see it?
Like yesterday’s physics prize, today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is giving the prize not to theorists who devised a crazy, later-proven idea or to those who did the analysis for a major discovery. Instead, they awarded scientists for developing experimental methods. In this case, the winners are Jacques Dubochet from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Joachim Frank from Columbia University in New York, and Richard Henderson from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, for “developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” They found a big new way to look at little things.
The researchers’ combined efforts led to major advances in how scientists use electron microscopes today—the microscopes that can image down to the atomic level. Henderson imaged a protein in three dimensions down to the atomic level. Frank found a way to fuse two-dimensional images to develop 3D ones. And Dubochet found a way to add water and quickly freeze samples without crystallising, essentially making a glass to capture molecules mid-movement without destroying them.
It’s important to note that lots of folks in the science community have been grumbling about the science Nobel Prizes for various reasons, including its lack of winner diversity and the fact that they’ve to begun to feel a little outdated. We summarised it here, and The Atlantic wrote a more in-depth take here.
The winning research has allowed the field to explode with new scientists making important discoveries with these techniques who may win awards themselves, though. So we’ve gathered a few of the best cryo-electron microscopy images we could find.
Cryo EM images of the φKZ virus (Fokine et al, Structure (2007))
And illustration of the complexity of the Zika Virus (Image: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)
Cyanobacteria embedded in ice, some beginning to show their DNA coalesce into chromosomes (arrows) (Murata et al, Scientific Reports (2016))
A/B: Chromosomes C/D: Cells (image: Maeshima et al, J. Biochem (2008))
A/B: The Cafeteria roenbergensis virus C: Its relative, the Acanthamoeba polyphaga mimivirus (Image: Xiao et al, Scientific Reports (2017))
A closeup of the ATP synthase molecule, an enzyme required for making the ubiquitous energy molecule, ATP (Image: Dudkina et al, FEBS Letters (2010))