Chemistry Nobel Winners Illuminated Cells

Microscope Closeup

The Nobel Prize recognized advances in how scientists see inside cells, beyond this basic microscope.

Another set of Nobel Prize winners was announced Wednesday, this time for achievements in Chemistry. These winners used techniques to help see inside cells.

Cells are the building blocks of life, grouping together to form organs and other parts of mammals, plants, and any living thing. Cells were discovered using a microscope, and although scientists at first thought they were the smallest component of organisms, there is much going on inside those tiny units. Being able to see inside cells helps scientists understand the processes, but it gets harder and harder to see at smaller and smaller scales.

Electron microscopes are able to see inside cells, but they cannot see inside living cells. Although they were a breakthrough, these microscopes would only let scientists observe dead cells and not in true color. Three different scientists thought there had to be a better way.

Dating back to the 1980s, the three Nobel winners were trying to find a better way to observe tiny living cells. This initial work eventually led to two different techniques, revealed in 2000 and 2006. U.S. researchers Eric Betzig, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and William Moerner, of Stanford University, as well as German scientist Stefan Hell, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, helped to revolutionize the field of nanoscopy.

The techniques by Betzig and Moerner, who worked independently, involve essentially lighting up the cells using a green fluorescent protein. The glowing proteins can help reveal what is going on in the cell in real-time, instead of relying on still pictures of dead cells. The light can be turned on and off, highlighting different areas, and allowing researchers to build up a picture of the inside of the cell. Hell’s technique uses laser beams to stimulate molecules to glow while hiding other areas, allowing researchers to slowly scan the sample to reveal a high resolution image. Both techniques allow scientists to see processes at work inside the living cells in rich detail.

The microscopic techniques have had implications for disease research, among other things. For example, scientists studying Huntington’s disease are able to observe the abnormal clumping of proteins inside the patients’ cells. This could lead researchers to a better understanding of the disease, and possible future treatments or cures. The same is true of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, giving researchers the ability to track proteins. Scientists can even use the nanoscopy techniques to see how synapes are created between nerve cells in the brain or track proteins as fertilized eggs develop into embryos.

Scientists once thought there was a limit to how much detail they could see using an optical microscope. However, these fluorescent techniques helped researchers see even deeper into a cell, observing its contents in even greater detail. The Nobel prize recognizes the work developing these techniques and the far-reaching effect these microscope techniques could have on a wide array of fields, from disease research to other areas of science. The three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry will share a $1.1 million prize.

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