An EU-funded chemist has won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for a technique that enables researchers to peer into the nanoworld of individual molecules.
Professor Stefan W. Hell, who has received EU funding multiple times, won the prize alongside US researchers Professor William E. Moerner and Dr Eric Betzig. The trio are credited with creating microscopes that can see at a greater resolution than half the wavelength of light.
That’s significant because Ernst Abbe, a famous microscopist in the 1800s, had used mathematics to show that scientists would never be able to view organisms with a microscope which were smaller than that.
‘So much physics happened in the twentieth century that it was impossible that there was no phenomenon that wouldn’t allow you to overcome the physical diffraction barrier that was coined in 1873 or so,’ Prof. Hell said in an audio interview posted on the Nobel Prize website. ‘I felt that there had to be something.’
In 1994 as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Turku, in Finland, he published a theoretical article outlining how he could use fluorescence techniques to build a kind of flashlight which would generate an image of far greater resolution than previously achieved.
‘It was impossible that there was no phenomenon that wouldn’t allow you to overcome the physical diffraction barrier.’
Professor Stefan W. Hell
He received funding from Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) to work on so-called fluorescence microscopy and then was invited to the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany. Here he managed to develop one of these microscopes, and in the year 2000 he imaged an E.coli bacterium at a never-before-seen resolution.
Having benefitted from the MSCA grant himself, Professor Hell later coordinated three MSCA individual fellowships. He and his fellow researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen also participated in collaborative projects funded by the EU, including the FLUODIAMON project which looked at using fluorescence microscopy to detect cancer. This year, three Nobel Prizes – for Physiology/Medicine, Physics and Chemistry – have all had links to the EU’s MSCA programme.
European Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, responsible for the MCSA scheme and European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said in a joint statement: ‘Outstanding researchers like Stefan W. Hell are an excellent example of what European research mobility can achieve.’
Prof. Moerner and Dr Betzig, developed a separate method called single-molecule microscopy.
These discoveries mean that researchers can now track proteins involved in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and follow individual proteins in fertilized eggs as these divide into embryos.
Professor Martijn Nawijn, an immunologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, tells Horizon about his quest to map every cell in a healthy human lung. He says this work should help to understand more about the causes of lung disease - which is comparatively understudied - and should lead to new therapies in the next 15 to 20 years.
There was one science story that dominated 2020 and coronavirus is likely to remain a dominant theme in 2021. But from vaccine rollout to lessons for future pandemics and – that other big challenge that we’re facing – climate change, how will the year in science play out? We asked a selection of our interviewees about lessons from 2020 and what needs to happen in their fields in the coming year.
There are about 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide and about 50 eruptions occur each year. But it’s still difficult to predict when and how these eruptions will happen or how they’ll unfold. Now, new insight into the physical processes inside volcanoes are giving scientists a better understanding of their behaviour, which could help protect the 1 billion people who live close to volcanoes.
Better predictions of volcano behaviour could protect people and infrastructure.
Bacteria can give structures an ‘in-built immune system’ to help them last longer.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.