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Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To Researchers Who Improved 'Imaging Of Biomolecules'


Today, three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a new way to image biological molecules. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more on the winners.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Richard Henderson works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. Earlier today, he was at a scientific conference happily listening to talks about new research using cryo-electron microscopy. That's a tool he pioneered. Then his phone rang. The call was from Sweden.


RICHARD HENDERSON: And I rarely get phone calls from Sweden. But I'm surrounded by the audience, so I rejected the phone call.


HENDERSON: And then it rang again. I thought, well, I'd better. So I then went outside.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He told reporters that's when he learned he'd won the Nobel Prize. He shares it with Jacques Dubochet in Switzerland and Joachim Frank at Columbia University in New York. At a press conference, Frank said he was sleeping when the call came. He just kept saying over and over, this is wonderful news.


JOACHIM FRANK: I didn't know anything else to say to these people in Sweden. And they kept apologizing for waking me up so early.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was OK. He's got a new dog that gets him up early anyway. The technique these guys developed lets scientists basically freeze biological molecules in mid-movement and then generate a 3-D picture of their structures at the atomic level. Just recently, for example, scientists used it to visualize the Zika virus.

ALLISON CAMPBELL: Unlike many other techniques, this allows you to actually see something. And as you probably know, a picture is worth a thousand words in helping you understand what it is that you're trying to study.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Allison Campbell is president of the American Chemical Society. She says what's really important is that this method lets you study molecules as they exist in water.

CAMPBELL: The solvent of proteins is water. The solvent of life is water. And you want to be able to study these things in their native environment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's the appeal for scientists like James Evans at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He says the technology has become a lot more accessible and powerful in the last five years.

JAMES EVANS: And so now there are at least a hundred labs around the world that are taking advantage of these new developments.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks this Nobel Prize is only going to increase the interest. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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