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A closer look at living cells: 3 win Nobel in chemistry for making super-zoom microscopes

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STOCKHOLM — Three researchers won a Nobel Prize on Wednesday for giving microscopes much sharper vision than was thought possible, letting scientists peer into living cells with unprecedented detail to seek the roots of disease.

The chemistry prize was awarded to U.S. researchers Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell. They found ways to use molecules that glow on demand to overcome what was considered a fundamental limitation for optical microscopes.

Betzig, 54, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia. Hell, 51, is director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany, and also works at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Moerner, 61, is a professor at Stanford University in California.

Their work, done independently and extending back to the 1980s, led to two techniques that were first demonstrated in 2000 and 2006.

Previously, a calculation published in 1873 was thought to define the limit of how tiny a detail could be revealed by optical microscopes.

"As recently as 15 years ago, it was believed to be theoretically impossible to break this barrier," said Nobel committee member Claes Gustafsson. He called the laureates' work "a revolution."

The result of their advance is "really a window into the cell which we didn't have before," said Catherine Lewis, director of the cell biology and biophysics division of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

"You can observe the behavior of individual molecules in living cells in real time. You can see ... molecules moving around inside the cell. You can see them interacting with each other."

The research of the three men has let scientists study diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Huntington's at a molecular level, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

"Due to their achievements, the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld," the academy said, giving the 8 million-kronor ($1.1 million) award jointly to the three for "the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."

While scientists can get still finer resolution by using an electron microscope, that device can't be used to examine cells that are alive.

"You really need to be able to look at living cells because life is animate — it's what defines life," Betzig said.

PHOTO: Eric Betzig from the U.S. hold a bunch of flower as he arrives in the Helmholtz Institute in Neuherberg near Munich, southern Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. U.S. scientists Betzig and William E. Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing ways to dramatically improve the resolution of optical microscopes. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Eric Betzig from the U.S. hold a bunch of flower as he arrives in the Helmholtz Institute in Neuherberg near Munich, southern Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. U.S. scientists Betzig and William E. Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing ways to dramatically improve the resolution of optical microscopes. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Hell said that close look can shed light on disease.

"Any disease, in the end, can be boiled down to a malfunctioning of the cell," he said. "And in order to understand what a disease actually means, you have to understand the cell and you have to understand the malfunction."

Hell has used the technology to examine nerve cells, Moerner studied proteins related to Huntington's disease, and Betzig tracked cell division inside embryos, the academy said.

Betzig said his reaction to hearing about the prize was "kind of like 50 percent happiness and 50 percent fear. Because I don't want my life to change. I really like my life, and I'm busy enough already."

Moerner heard the news as he stepped out of a shower in Brazil, where he was attending a conference. The phone call came from his wife, who learned that he'd won from The Associated Press.

"I'm incredibly excited and happy to be included with Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell," Moerner told the AP.

Hell, who was born in Romania, said he was "totally surprised, I couldn't believe it."

This year's Nobel awards began Monday with U.S.-British scientist John O'Keefe splitting the medicine award with Norwegian couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for brain research that could pave the way for a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's.

On Tuesday, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and U.S. scientist Shuji Nakamura won physics award for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes — a breakthrough that spurred the development of LED technology, which can be used to light up homes, offices and the screens of mobile phones, computers and TVs.

The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced Thursday, followed by the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics prize Monday.

The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the date that prize founder Alfred Nobel died in 1896.


Malcolm Ritter reported from New York. Malin Rising in Stockholm, Alex Chihak in Phoenix, Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Michael Faulhaber in Munich, Germany, contributed to this report.

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Video:
PHOTO: Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing new methods that let microscopes see finer details than they could before. (Oct. 8)
Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing new methods that let microscopes see finer details than they could before. (Oct. 8)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Stefan Hell, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry stands behind at the microscope he developed at the Max Planck Insitute in Goettingen, central Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Hell shares the prize with US-Americans Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner for developing ways to dramatically improve the resolution of optical microscopes. (AP Photo/Hubert Jelinek)
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