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Chemistry Nobel Winners are Asset to Biology

Posted by on October 13, 2014

Amanda Hardy AMSB is schools and colleges officer at the Society of Biology. She writes about this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and its impact on biology.

Photograph: Stefan W Hell/Division of Optical Nanoscopy/German Cancer Research Center

Photograph: Stefan W Hell/Division of Optical Nanoscopy/German Cancer Research Center

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”. All three scientists trained as physicists. Through their work at the interface of physics with chemistry, they have created a microscope which enables living processes to be followed in ‘nanoscopic’ detail. (A nanometre is one thousand-millionth of a metre.)

Previously it was thought that light microscopes had reached the limits of resolution with smaller objects being impossible to study in this way.  It was assumed objects could only be seen if they were at least the same size as the wavelength of light used to illuminate them. This is important as molecules are too small to be seen using normal visible light, even large biological molecules such as proteins had to be studied by other methods. Proteins and the constituents of cells can be studied in great detail using scanning electron microscopy, this uses electrons to ‘illuminate’ the sample and creates black and white images with intricate detail now familiar to people from electron micrographs of viruses and bacteria occasionally published in the media.

The massive advantage in using the new super-resolved fluorescence microscopy recognised by this year’s Nobel Prize, is in the ability to follow living processes in living cells. Cells studied by electron microscopy require pre-treatment to enable clear images to be recorded. The preparation of samples by thinly coating with a conductive material to prevent charge build up on the sample (similar to the charge build up which when discharged gives you a static shock, and in this case makes electron micrograph images fuzzy) and the use of high vacuum tend to kill cells and stop living processes.

Now large biological molecules can be tracked in living systems. Complex biological processes can be studied in greater detail, thus helping scientists understand living processes and what happens to cause disease if these processes change.

Every so often we are able to celebrate the achievements of people or groups of people who achieve things or discover things conventional wisdom assumes to be impossible. This year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize is an example of cross-disciplinary research leading to exciting new tools and theory allowing scientists to learn more about our world.  Congratulations to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner on their well-deserved prize.

Find out more about this year’s Nobel Prize winners and their work.

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