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Nobel Prize In Chemistry Honors Views Of Human Cells Working At The Atomic Level

An illustration provided by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences shows the dramatic gain in resolution that came with the development of cryo-electron microscopy. What had been seen as blobs can now be distinguished as proteins in atomic resolution.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to researchers Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for their work that developed cryo-electron microscopy, which the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says "both simplifies and improves the imaging of biomolecules."

Speaking to the prize committee by phone Wednesday morning, Frank said he had thought the chance of him winning the prestigious honor was "minuscule."

He added that cryo-electron microscopy "is about to completely transform structural biology," saying the technology is being taken up by a new generation of medical researchers.

The academy adds that the advance "has moved biochemistry into a new era" and provided new ways of seeing complex structures and operations within human cells at a never-before-seen level of resolution.

The recent spike in Zika cases hinted at that new era. The Swedish academy noted that the technology was used to create three-dimensional images of the virus and its proteins at atomic resolution — "and researchers could start searching for potential targets for pharmaceuticals."

Dubochet is affiliated with the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland; Frank is affiliated with Columbia University in New York; Henderson is affiliated with the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K.

Here's how the Academy describes their accomplishments:

"Electron microscopes were long believed to only be suitable for imaging dead matter, because the powerful electron beam destroys biological material. But in 1990, Richard Henderson succeeded in using an electron microscope to generate a three-dimensional image of a protein at atomic resolution. This breakthrough proved the technology's potential.

"Joachim Frank made the technology generally applicable. Between 1975 and 1986 he developed an image processing method in which the electron microscope's fuzzy twodimensional images are analysed and merged to reveal a sharp three-dimensional structure.

"Jacques Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. Liquid water evaporates in the electron microscope's vacuum, which makes the biomolecules collapse. In the early 1980s, Dubochet succeeded in vitrifying water – he cooled water so rapidly that it solidified in its liquid form around a biological sample, allowing the biomolecules to retain their natural shape even in a vacuum."

With the award, seven Americans have now been honored among the nine researchers who have been recognized so far in the 2017 Nobel season. Toward the end of Wednesday's event, a journalist from Chinese radio asked Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Secretary General Göran K. Hansson about the prevalence of Americans, and what it says about U.S. research environment and policies.

In his reply, Hansson said:

"The United States has, since the Second World War, allowed scientists to perform fundamental research, to focus on important questions in science — not forcing them to immediate applications, not controlling them in a political way. And that freedom, combined with very good resources, has been very helpful to the United States."

He added, "But it's not unique to the United States."

Last year's chemistry Nobel also went to small-scale work, honoring three scientists who worked to construct molecular machines — including the first molecular motor.

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