Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a way to create detailed images of the molecules that drive life — a technology that the Nobel committee said allowed scientists to visualize molecular processes they had never previously seen.
The 9-million-kronor (US$1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York’s Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their method, called cryo-electron microscopy, allows researchers to “freeze biomolecules” mid-movement. The technology “is decisive for both the basic understanding of life’s chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals,” it said.
For instance, the academy said the technique was used when scientists began suspecting the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged children in Brazil. Images of the virus allowed researchers to “start searching for potential targets” for Zika drugs.
Frank said he was “fully overwhelmed” on hearing he had won.
“I thought the chances of a Nobel Prize were minuscule because there are so many other innovations and discoveries that happen almost every day,” he said. “So yes, I was in a way speechless.”
He said he hasn’t yet thought about what to do with the prize money, but added: “I was telling my wife that we don’t have to worry about a dog sitter anymore.”
American Chemical Society president Allison Campbell said the technology is like “the Google Earth for molecules.”
“This discovery allows the scientist to zoom in down to the fine detail (giving) that fine resolution that you want to have,” she told The Associated Press. “Having all the exquisite detail just gives you a wealth of information about that protein molecule and how it is interacting with its environment.”