Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Nanoscale microscope wins Nobel Prize for EU researcher

Fluorescence microscopy has enabled scientists to see parts of cells never seen before. Image: Stefan W. Hell/Division of Optical Nanoscopy/German Cancer Research Center
Fluorescence microscopy has enabled scientists to see parts of cells never seen before. Image: Stefan W. Hell/Division of Optical Nanoscopy/German Cancer Research Center

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.

More info