Nobel Chemistry Winners Open Window into Living Cells

The 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry has gone to three physicists who together have given us a clearer view of the smallest structures of living cells.

Awarded on October 8th to Eric Betzig, 54, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia; Stefan W. Hell, 51, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany; and William E. Moerner, 61, of Stanford University in California, the prize celebrates their process for improved microscope imaging.

The process was made possible through over 20 years of research with the technique of fluorescence microscopy. This technique has limitations because the light created is not focused. The glowing molecules tend to spill their light and obscure to subject being observed.

According to the New York Times article, In 1994, Dr. Hell’s insight was to use lasers to restrict that glow to a specific area. This allowed structures smaller than the diffraction limit of light to be defined based on which molecules were activated. Concurrently, Dr. Moerner was working with a green fluorescent protein first found in glowing jellyfish. He found a version of the the protein that he could turn on or off by shining it with specific colors of light.

In 2008, This advance from Dr. Moerner triggered Dr. Betzig to revisit an idea he had back in 1995. Rather than using multiple colors of fluorescence simultaneously, he tried selectively employing fluorescent molecules to capture multiple images with different colors of light.

By combining the various images produced under different lighting conditions, a much sharper composite image was formed showing details once obscured beyond the diffraction limit.

With this final step in place, the three men have been applying the process to examine everything from brain synapses, proteins related to Huntington’s disease, and cell division inside embryos.

Time will only tell what this new imaging will uncover. All we know now is it will look better than ever before. For an overview of the process complete with props, check out the explanation below via Periodic Videos