Nanoscopy pioneers win Nobel Prize

Three scientists have won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in honor of their contributions to the the development of microscopes. Erik Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and W. E. Moerner all separately created techniques that allowed optical microscopes to see single molecules and proteins. This has implications for the study of diseases, since the new techniques allow for closer observation of cell components without killing the cell.

The significance of these discoveries can be understood by looking at the historical background. In 1876, Ernst Abbe, a German physicist and optics expert, theorized that optical microscopes could never observe anything smaller than half the wavelength of light, or 0.2 micrometers. That limit has defined optical microscopes since that time. While electron microscopes can magnify objects further, the process of preparing samples for such devices kills any living organism samples. Betzig, Hell and Moerner have not refuted this theory but simply found ingenious ways around it. As a result, scientists can now see nanoscopic objects while keeping them alive.

Stefan Hell’s method is called stimulated emission depletion (STED). According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the method uses lasers as “a kind of nano-flashlight” that can illuminate molecules a tiny bit at a time. Working in a Finnish laboratory, he believed that he could use his technique to surpass the boundaries of current optical science. Eventually, he put his theories into practice at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. There, in 2000, he took images of an E. coli bacterium at unprecedented resolutions. His work now focuses on using this mechanism to study the human nervous system, especially brain synapses.

Meanwhile, Betzig and Moerner created what is called single-molecule microscopy, which works on different principles. Rather than scanning many tiny sections and compositing a single image, it take pictures of multiple molecules and averages them to create a more precise visual. Moerner, who started at an IBM laboratory in 1989, had by 1997 proved that his process could work. Betzig, meanwhile, built on this theoretical work to discover that scientists could activate certain molecules at will, meaning that his technique could be put into practice to isolate and study single molecules. That breakthrough occurred in 2005, after Betzig had previously left scientific research to work in his father’s company. He is now studying cell division in embryos, while Moerner is working on studies of Huntington’s disease. Other scientists have applied these techniques to myriad other research projects.

These later projects show the potential of the new microscopes to profoundly change scientific understandings of disease and other life functions. The Nobel committee recognized this in their award, saying, “Today, nanoscopy is used worldwide and new knowledge of greatest benefit to [humanity] is produced on a daily basis.” Each of the three men will receive a $1.1 million USD prize for their efforts and achievements.

These awards and the men who received them exemplify the importance of technology to the continued development for technology and research. While this innovation is most applicable to chemical processes, it has and will continue to have wide repercussions in biology and related fields.