Three Scientists Win Nobel Prize in Chemistry


04 October, 2017

Three scientists have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for their work to simplify and improve the imaging of biomolecules.

Goran Hansson is Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He announced the names of the winners Wednesday from the group's headquarters in Stockholm.

"The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson."

Hansson said the scientists were being recognized for what he described as "a cool method for imaging the molecules of life."

Jacques Dubochet works at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Joachim Frank is with Columbia University in the United States. Richard Henderson is with Britain's Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.

Richard Henderson, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, holds a bacterio rhodopsin model prior to a press conference at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.
Richard Henderson, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, holds a bacterio rhodopsin model prior to a press conference at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.

The three scientists developed a way to create three-dimensional (3D) images of biological molecules – images with height, width and depth. Their method is called cryo-electron microscopy.

The Royal Swedish Academy described cryo-electron microscopy as "decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development" of new medicines.

Scientists long believed that electron microscopes could only be used to study non-living things. The reason? Their powerful electron beam destroys biological material. But cryo-technology freezes the biological material, keeping it at extremely low temperatures. This protects it from damage.

The power of the technology could be seen in the Zika crisis last year. Zika virus was linked to an increase in brain-damaged babies in Brazil. The virus spreads when an infected mosquito bites a pregnant woman.

As concerns about Zika spread, scientists turned to cryo-electronic microscopy to make 3-D images of the virus at the atomic level. This helped researchers as they worked to create drugs and vaccines.

The Nobel committee noted Wednesday that, in 1990, Henderson used an electron microscope to produce a 3-D image of a protein at atomic-level resolution.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Frank developed mathematical models to sharpen images from such microscopes.

Dubochet added water to electron microscopy. He cooled water so quickly that it solidified in its liquid form around biological material. The process formed a kind of glass instead of ice. As a result, the biomolecules were able to keep their natural shape.

The three scientists will share the $1.1 million prize.

The Nobel prizes are named after the Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel. He was the inventor of dynamite, an explosive.

Nobel left $9,000,000 in his will to establish yearly prizes. He said they should go to living people who have worked most effectively to improve human life. The first awards were presented in 1901.

The chemistry prize is the third Nobel announced this week. The literature winner will be named Thursday and the peace prize will be announced Friday.

I'm Anne Ball.

VOANews.com reported on this story. George Grow adapted the report for Learning English. His story includes information from the Associated Press and Reuters news agency. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

academy – n. a school, usually place of higher learning; a society or group of learned persons

three-dimensional – adj. of or related to having height, width and depth

beam – n. a line or energy or light

mosquito – n. an insect

resolution – n. the ability of a device to show an image clearly and with a lot of detail