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Nobel Chemistry Prize Focuses on Revolution in Microscope Resolution

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A multiphoton fluorescence image shows cultured HeLa cancer cells with a fluorescent protein targeted to the Golgi apparatus (orange), microtubules (green) and counterstained for DNA (cyan). The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research.
A multiphoton fluorescence image shows cultured HeLa cancer cells with a fluorescent protein targeted to the Golgi apparatus (orange), microtubules (green) and counterstained for DNA (cyan). The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research.Tom Deerinck / NIH

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Two Americans and a German shared this year's Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for making a quantum leap in light microscopy.

The laureates are Eric Betzig, 54, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Stanford University's William Moerner, 61; and Romanian-born Stefan Hell, 51, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen and division head of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said they earned the prize "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."

Staffan Normark, the academy's permanent secretary, said during Wednesday's announcement in Stockholm that the research behind the prize is about "how the optical microscope became a nanoscope."

During an impromptu teleconference, Hell told reporters that he was able to get around what seemed to be theoretical limits for the resolution of optical microscopes by "playing with the molecules, changing the state of the molecules."

He admitted that there were times when he nearly gave up, but he had faith in the scientific principles behind fluorescence microscopy. "I knew that this was going to work," he said.

New frontier for microscopes

The three researchers found ways to increase the resolution of optical microscopes dramatically, even though some scientists thought it was impossible. Back in 1873, microscopist Ernst Abbe said that the maximum resolution for optical microscopes could never be any better than 0.2 micrometers.

Electron microscopes can do better, said Lund University chemist Sven Lidin, chairman of the Nobel chemistry committee. "But electromicroscopy does not allow us to study living cells, or the processes within them," Lidin said.

The academy said the methods pioneered by the laureates allow researchers to track the proteins involved in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases as they aggregate; follow the proteins in fertilized eggs as the cells turn into embryos; and watch how individual molecules move along the pathways inside living cells.

Image: Chemistry Nobel Prize Winners
This year's winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry are, from left, Eric Betzog of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry; and William Moerner of Stanford University.EPA

"Now we can observe E. coli ... in all the glory of super-resolution without having to kill them, slide them, fixate them and subject them to intense radiation and high vacuum," Lidin said. "They can be studied in real time, while they live long and prosper."

The prize recognizes two separate microscopy techniques: One of them, developed by Hell in 2000, is known as stimulated emission depletion microscopy, or STED. This involves using one laser beam to stimulate fluorescent molecules to glow, and another laser beam to cancel out the fluorescence except for a nanometer-sized volume.

The other technique, developed separately by Betzig and Moerner, is called single-molecule microscopy. The method turns the fluorescence of molecules on and off, molecule by molecule. Superimposing multiple images results in a super-dense, super-high-resolution picture.

Nobel parade continues

The laureates will share $1.1 million (8 million Swedish kronor) in prize money, and receive their gold medals during an awards ceremony in December.

This year's round of Nobel announcements kicked off on Monday with the medicine prize, which went to U.S.-British researcher John O'Keefe and Norwegian husband-and-wife team May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for discovering the "inner GPS" that helps the brain navigate through the world.

The physics prize followed on Tuesday: Japanese-American physicist Shuju Nakamura shared the prize with Japanese colleagues Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, for inventing the blue-light diodes that brought about a revolution in LED lighting.

Next up is the literature prize, to be announced on Thursday, followed by the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics prize on Monday. Keep an eye on the Nobel Prize YouTube channel for live streaming events and other webcasts.

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