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Nobel Committee: 3 Scientists Win Chemistry Prize


The names are in - the winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry go to three scientists, and they won for developing new microscopes that can see individual molecules of living material with incredible resolution. They independently disproved a long-held belief that there was a theoretical limit for optical microscopes. The Nobel committee says they've opened new horizons in the study of biology. Joining us to talk about the latest prize is NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.


MARTIN: OK. I mentioned those names. Who are they?

HARRIS: Well, the prize is shared three ways. The first one is Eric Betzig at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus, which is outside of Washington, D.C. Another share goes to William Moerner at Stanford University. And the third winner is Stefan Hell, who is director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen, Germany. He was born in Romania and the other two men are born in the United States.

MARTIN: And I gave a very small thumbnail of what they won for, but tell us more. What are the details of this?

HARRIS: Well, the details are that scientists have believed for a really long time that a microscope that uses light has a theoretical limit on how fine its resolution can be. Think about it this way - if you're using light waves to study something the idea is you can't see anything much smaller than the size of light waves themselves. While Stefan Hell wasn't so sure this was true, and he started thinking about ways to get around this limit. He realized if you could get the materials to glow or fluoresce by zapping them with laser light that would actually be good way to get around the limit, and he developed this idea building a method called a stimulated emission depletion microscopy in 2000, so this is all pretty modern stuff.

MARTIN: OK. So that's the German scientist. Where do the two American scientists come in?

HARRIS: Well, Eric Betzig and William Moerner were working independently. Moerner was working with a naturally occurring protein that's found in jellyfish that fluoresces - or glows in the dark - and biologists had been sticking that on to other molecules and using it as a pretty handy way to see biological structures. Moerner discovered that this glowing feature could actually be turned on and off and that gave him an idea. He said, hey, if you can turn it on and off you could use it for imaging studies at these incredibly fine resolutions. And so that was another way to get around the supposedly ironclad physical limit. And Eric Betzig took this step one step further by realizing that he could use molecules that glow in different colors, and if you combine different colors than that gives you another leg up in a way of improving resolution. So he was able to make images that were much crisper than an optical microscope could make on its own; and the method the American scientists invented is called single molecule microscopy.

MARTIN: All right. So we've got glowing molecules, we've got sharper resolution - what does that mean? What do you do with that?

HARRIS: Well, biologists have struggled for centuries to understand what going on inside living cells. We have those chromosomes dancing around inside your cells and all sorts of other molecules. Cells are full of all sorts of other tiny bits called organelles, which is where the chemistry of life really takes place. So the better you can see these things the more you can understand what's going on. You know, if you think of NASA's pictures of planets and so on, remember the early ones were all fuzzy and you couldn't tell very much, and later the later ones were really nice and crisp. Well, it's the same thing here. You can learn so much more if you have a much more crisp and detailed picture.

MARTIN: What about health - healthcare, diseases? Does this help with that?

HARRIS: Well, the Nobel committee did say that Moerner at Stanford has been studying proteins that are related to Huntington's disease, which is an inherited disease of the nervous system, but I would really put this in the category of fundamental research - basic research - and it's really building blocks for the foundations of knowledge that cuts across all diseases. It may prove really useful for one or the other, but basically it's the foundation here.

MARTIN: Thanks so much, Richard. NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris talking about the Nobel Prize winners in chemistry.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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