Nobel goes to trio who improved microscopes

Nobel Peace Prize

Eric Betzig and William E Moerner of the United States and Stefan W Hell of Germany won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing methods to study minute details in living cells, overcoming barriers raised by earlier technology.

wpid-r-NOBEL-PRIZE-large570-300x125.jpg“Due to their achievements the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday.

Betzig, Moerner and Hell will share the prize, worth 8 million kronor (1.1 million dollars).

The three developed techniques that allow scientists to study living cells in tiniest molecular detail and produce “new knowledge of greatest benefit to mankind,” according to the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who endowed the chemistry prize.

“It has changed the chemical, molecular and biological look on the world,” Professor Astrid Graslund, secretary of the Nobel chemistry committee, told dpa.

Previously, researchers were only able to see “the contours of a living cell … but you couldn’t see any details,” she added.

“Here is a possibility to look into live cells and see their minute details, even single molecules sitting on the surface of a nerve cell,” Graslund said.

The findings are useful, for instance, when studying processes involved in neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease.

Romanian-born German citizen Hell, 51, director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, received the award for developing stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy. The technique uses two laser beams to provide images smaller than 0.2 micrometres, previously thought to be a physical barrier.

US citizens Betzig, 54, at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virgina, and Moerner, 61, at Stanford University, worked separately in developing single-molecule microscopy.

Under this method, the ability of molecules to glow under light are turned off and on at different times so that images of them can be made and superimposed to yield “a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel.”

Speaking by phone to reporters at the Swedish Academy, Hell said he was “totally surprised” to learn he had been awarded the prize.

“It took me a while to realize it, I must say,” he said.

Hell said his discovery had helped contribute to “a) understanding how the cell works, and b) understanding what goes wrong if the cell is somehow diseased, if some disease sets in.”

Graslund said the academy had informed Betzig of his win when he was visiting Munich, Germany, but had not been able to reach Moerner before the announcement.

The award ceremony is scheduled for December 10 in Stockholm.

Graslund and other members of the academy noted that both Betzig and Hell had been close to quitting their fields over the lack of progress and support but had persevered.

“It’s fair to say the scientific community was not very receptive to the idea of overcoming the distraction barrier,” Hell summed up in his phone interview.

Nobel Prizes are also awarded in the fields of medicine, physics, literature, peace and economics.

The first prize announcement was on Monday, when the medicine or physiology prize was awarded to John O’Keefe and married couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser for work on the brain’s navigation system.

On Tuesday, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura shared the physics prize for inventing blue light-emitting diodes.

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