The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The three pioneers of cryo-electron microscopy, Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded the prize for a technique that has been termed as “the method of the year” by the National Institutes of Health.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
The winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

What is cryo-electron microscopy?

Cryo-electron microscopy is a technique that deduces the structure of biomolecules. Beams of electrons are fired at proteins frozen in solution. And this brilliant microscope does that!!

“Cryo” refers to low temperatures which can sink below minus 150 degrees in Celsius. Note that the object to be imaged is placed under low temperatures.

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Why is it necessary to adopt the cryo-EM method?

For decades, X-ray crystallography has been used. X-rays were blasted at crystallized proteins which resulted in waves interfering with each other, inducing a diffraction pattern. This was done by electron microscopes.

The position of the atoms was deduced from the diffracted pattern. But the beam produced by the electron microscope was so powerful that it could destroy the biological material.

Viewing proteins soluble in water was difficult. The water would evaporate under vacuum created by the electron microscope.

Previously, researchers had to make considerable concessions when they wanted to look at the smallest units of life.  Bulky dyes, labels or stains were used for the visualization of cell functions.

This would alter their behavior and provide minimal information in 2D. Between 1975 and 1986, Professor Frank figured out a solution to the problem.

He merged two –dimensional fuzzy images micrographs together, yielding a three-dimensional image. There was another piece of the puzzle though. How to revive the biological samples that were damaged when exposed to vacuum?

In the 1980s, Professor Dubochet and his team worked out a method to prevent drying out of water-soluble biomolecules when exposed to vacuum. He cooled water rapidly, freezing it into a disordered state.

This supercooled liquid looked like a glass and was called “vitrified water”. The water being solidified would no longer evaporate, allowing the biomolecules to retain their original shape even under vacuum.

Finally, in 1990, Professor Henderson was able to present a structure of bacteriorhodopsin at atomic resolution. Bacteriorhodopsin was a molecule that would move proton across cellular membranes through light energy.

This method proved so effective that it was used to visualize the elusive Zika Virus. The Zika Virus was an epidemic among brain-damaged infants in Brazil.  Thanks to the cryo-EM method, researchers could detect the source of the virus and provide necessary meds.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics
The Zika virus at an atomic resolution by cryo-EM method

 

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish for the “discovery that shook the world” as touted by the Royal Swedish Academy. Yes, the pioneering discovery of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves.

The 2017 Nobel Prize
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

Discovery of Gravitational Waves

This discovery dates back to Albert Einstein’s longstanding prediction of gravitational waves being artifacts of General Relativity. The General Relativity stated that matter and energy existed in the fabric of space-time.

Or in simple words, the void of space-time can rock and boom like a bowlful of jelly. Invisible waves or energy in the form of gravitational waves were produced when massive objects swing around them.

But Einstein’s paper was rejected contending that gravitational waves were not physical as they carried no energy.

The 2017 Nobel Prize
The movement of gravitational waves

 What could the discovery of Gravitational waves mean?

As Dr. Thorne and Dr. Drever developed a laser-based gravitational wave-detector, Dr. Weiss was following the same thing in M.I.T.  In spite of the technological odds against them, they managed to detect that gravitational waves would produce an imperceptible change in the distance between the mirrors.

These three were just a small part of the formation of the LIGO collaboration. About more than 1000 members of LIGO detected gravitational waves directly through multiple detectors installed across various locations across the world.

We had rumors persisting that black holes exist. But with this astronomical discovery, Black holes will be detected in the future as gravitational waves are released by violent events such as the mergers of black holes. And we can even delve deep into the origin of the Universe. Yes, the Science of Interstellar is true!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Images from Google Images )


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