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European microscopy scientists win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Developments in electron microscopy have enabled researchers to examine the structure of biomolecules, such as the Zika virus, in great detail. Image credit - The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Two EU-funded scientists have shared in the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in developing ways of producing detailed images of the molecules that form the building blocks of life.

Professor Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and Dr Richard Henderson, Cambridge University, UK, were awarded the prize jointly with Dr Joachim Frank, Columbia University, USA. They each take home a share of the SEK 9 million (EUR 945 000) award for their work with cryo-electron microscopy.

Their research allows scientists to freeze living molecules - known as biomolecules - mid-movement to examine their structures through 3D imagery. This has proved crucial for numerous areas of research, for example, enabling scientists to obtain images of the Zika virus and to visualise proteins that cause antibiotic resistance.

Prior to their research, electron microscopes were believed to be suitable only for imaging dead matter, but over 25 years ago, Dr Henderson managed to capture a 3D image of organic matter when he viewed a protein at atomic resolution. His work built on Dr Frank’s, who had made the technology applicable in the 1970s and 1980s when he developed a processing method to transform the 2D images into sharp 3D visualisations.

‘I am proud to see that EU support has helped two of this year's Nobel Prize laurates to move biochemistry into a new era.’

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation

Prof. Dubochet added water to the electron microscopy process, which, when it evaporates in the microscope’s vacuum, causes biomolecules to collapse. Together, these discoveries have not only benefitted scientific research but have optimised the strengths of electron microscopes.

Previously Prof. Dubochet participated in the 3D-EM project to which the EU contributed EUR 10 million to develop new electron microscopy approaches for studying protein complexes and cellular architecture.

Dr Henderson was also a participant in the INSTRUCT project which linked the information obtained by major structural biology methods with state-of-the-art cell biology techniques to provide dynamic pictures of key cellular processes at all levels.

Since 2013, the quality of images we are able to see through electron microscopes has increased dramatically. Image credit - Martin Högbom/ The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: ‘I warmly congratulate Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson on their achievement. I am proud to see that EU support has helped two of this year's Nobel Prize laureates to move biochemistry into a new era, which will ultimately benefit the society and economy.’

Dr Henderson and Dr Frank both previously provided external expertise to the EU’s European Research Council.

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