The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 Laureates Announced

Congratulations to the Pioneers of Cryo-Electron Microscopy

Sincere congratulations to this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry Laureates, Dr. Jacques Dubochet, Dr. Joachim Frank and Dr. Richard Henderson. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) has honored the three researchers for their work in developing cryo-electron microscopy.

Dr. Jacques Dubochet, Honorary Professor of Biophysics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, focused on cryo-electron microscopy and tomography throughout his illustrious career. He made many contributions to the science, but perhaps the most significant was his vitrification method, developed in the early 1980s.

The method involves shooting the aqueous sample into ethane at around -190ºC, which vitrifies the water around the sample, freezing the molecule intact. Continuous cooling with liquid nitrogen preserves the structures for the full duration of the examination.

Thanks to this breakthrough, it’s possible to see how a molecule behaves during a biological process and gain deep structural insight into proteins, viruses and other biomolecules.

“Electrons are great: even a single molecule may leave a trace in their beam and electron microscopists have learned to make use of them with breathtaking effect. But they are also rather destructive: the column of an electron microscope must be under a vacuum, while risks of structural damage lurk around every corner.”

“Water evaporates in an electron microscope, but when treated with suitable care, water is the electron microscopist’s best friend.”

— Dr. Jacques Dubochet, Nobel Prize in Chemistry Laureate 2017

Dr. Joachim Frank, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Columbia University, United States, is the biophysicist credited with making single-particle cryo-electron microscopy broadly applicable. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he developed the image processing method that is essential to generating the sharp three-dimensional structures that electron microscopy is now known for.

Dr. Frank was inducted into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2007 for his contributions to the understanding of the ribosome. His earlier work on cryo-electron microscopy was essential to his discoveries about ribosome structure and behavior.

Thanks to his image processing methods, we can derive meaning from the multiple individual images generated by the technology and continue to delve into the molecular biology of living organisms.

“An individual image of a molecule is very noisy. It's meaningless. Only averages over large numbers have any meaning.”

“The ice [in cryo-EM] is amorphous. This is very important because if the water has time to form crystals, the biological material is destroyed.”

— Dr. Joachim Frank, Nobel Prize in Chemistry Laureate 2017

Dr. Richard Henderson,

Honorary Fellow Corpus Christi College Cambridge University and Honorary Member of the British Biophysical Society, used electron microscopy in a number of important breakthroughs, including solving the structure of membrane proteins such as bacteriorhodopsin (bR).

In 1990, he applied the technology to generate a three-dimensional model of bR at atomic resolution. Dr. Henderson’s success proved that the technology could be used to visualize biological material. He went on to make extremely important contributions to single-particle electron microscopy and the techniques he developed are still in use.

“The resolution of single particle electron cryomicroscopy (cryoEM) has been greatly improved to the extent that it is now a serious alternative to crystallography. In many but not all cases, atomic structures can now be obtained using single-particle cryoEM.”

— Dr. Richard Henderson, Nobel Prize in Chemistry Laureate 2017

This technology has opened a wealth of possibilities in the visualization of biomolecules and biochemical processes. Modern biochemistry owes a huge debt of gratitude to these three scientists for their incredible work in this field.

Congratulations again to the three recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It is certainly well deserved.

The following notable articles have been made available to read for free:

Dr. Jacques Dubochet

Dr. Joachim Frank

Dr. Richard Henderson