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Chemistry Nobel awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Michael Henderson

The Nobel prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Michael Henderson on Wednesday for developing cryo-electron microscopy.

world Updated: Oct 05, 2017 14:57 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
The Alfred Nobel Statue pictured in Stockholm, Sweden, prior to the Nobel prize awarding ceremony. The Nobel prizes were created as part of the Swedish inventor’s last wishes. ((AFP Photo))

The Nobel prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, Michael Henderson on Wednesday.

This year’s prize was awarded “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution,” or as the presenters from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described it “a cool way” of imaging the molecules of life.

“I am fully overwhelmed, I thought the chances of getting a Nobel prize are minuscule because there are so many other =innovations and discovery every day,” Joachim Frank said via a telephonic call to the conference.

“Structural research has been mainly done with X-ray crystallography. It requires the molecules to be arranged very rigidly, it is not applicable to all molecules,” he explained. Molecules go through alot of stages that cannot be captured X-ray crystallography. Their technology “makes it possible to see these molecules in the functional state,” he added.

The other scientists who were viewed as strong contenders were Lithium–ion battery inventors Stanley Whittingham and John Goodenough, bio-inorganic chemistry pioneers Harry Gray and Stephen Lippard, Chemical engineer Jens Nørskov from Stanford University, U.S., Tsutomu Miyasaka from Japan, Nam-Gyu Park from South Korea and Henry Snaith from the UK, who discovered perovskites and their use in solar cells. Hybrid organic–inorganic perovskite crystals are used in semi conductors and improve the efficiency of solar cells.

Another group of scientists consisting of Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Feng Zhang who worked on a gene-editing technology CRISPR, were also leading contenders for the prize. The CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, is viewed as revolutionary because it allows scientists to edit genes with unprecedented ease.

Electron microscopy has long been used to capture images of dead matter not biological matter the potent electron beam annihilates life. Henderson was instrumental in using the electron microscope to build a 3-D image of a protein, a biomolecule, at atomic resolution. Frank came up with an image processing technique that made it possible to transform hazy 2D images into sharp 3D structures.

At the ceremony the presenters shared the first images of viruses surrounded by vitrified water published by Dubochet in Nature in 1984 ( Screenshot from Twitter Live feed )

However, there was one problem with all this, liquid water in biomolecules evaporates in the vacuum created by the electron microscope which deforms the molecules. Dubochet is credited with introducing a way of cooling water quickly so that it solidifies in its liquid state around the sample, preserving the natural shape of the biomolecules even in a vacuum.

Frank acknowledged that their own methodology was still some way from practical use. It was used to reconstruct the Zika virus, according to a Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences release.

“The immediate practical use immense, but there is a long time between the results of fundamental research to make their way into their general knowledge and the practice of medicine,” Frank said.

No Indian citizen has won the Nobel prize in Chemistry. In 2009, an Indian-born structural biologist, Venkatraman ‘’Venky’’ Ramakrishnan, won the prize for his work in ribosomal structure.

The Chemistry award has now been awarded 109 times, and only one laureate, Frederick Sanger, a British biochemist, has won the prestigious award twice in 1950 and 1980.

The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced on October 5 and the peace prize on October 6.

First Published: Oct 04, 2017 15:21 IST