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United Kingdom scientist among Nobel Prize winners for 3D molecule imaging

United Kingdom scientist among Nobel Prize winners for 3D molecule imaging

Jacques Dubochet, of Switzerland, Joachim Frank, born in Germany but now at Columbia University, and Richard Henderson, a British scientist at Cambridge, will each equally split the prize.

The method - which "moved biochemistry into a new era", according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences - works by freezing biomolecules mid-movement in order to visualize many processes that were otherwise unseen by science.

The development, it said, "is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals".

Cryo-electron microscopy was recently used to study the biomolecules linked to the Zika virus, which is responsible for cases of extremely small heads in newborn babies in Brazil and several other Latin American nations.

The Nobel award week opened Monday with a trio of USA scientists sharing the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research into how organism's internal biological clocks align themselves with natural cycles of night and day.

The detailed images may pave the way for developing new medicines, vaccines and industrial chemicals, but experts said such payoffs are largely in the future.

Previously, electron microscopy imaging was only suitable for studying dead matter, because the electron beam destroys any biological material it is applied to.

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It's been hard to capture life's "molecular machinery", however, meaning we don't really know what the 3-D structure of biomolecules looks like, which hampers our ability to understand them. This causes surrounding water to evaporate, and the molecules being studied collapse and lose their normal structure.

He explained that cryo-electron microscopy emerged back in the 1980s, and has been actively developing over the recent years due to the improvement in tool and computing platforms, including supercomputers.

Dubochet, Frank and Henderson developed a method that made it possible to see the molecules of life for the first time as three-dimensional structures at atomic resolution.

For decades, biologists have used x-ray crystallography - blasting x-rays at crystalline proteins - to image biomolecular structures.

As alarm about the outbreak spread, scientists were able to generate three-dimensional images of Zika at the atomic level, jump-starting the search for potential drugs and vaccines.

Frank told journalists gathered at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that technological innovations can have a larger impact than discoveries.

Additional Nobel Prizes will be awarded over the next few days - literature on Thursday, peace on Friday and economics on October 9. The three winners of the $1.1 million (9 million kronor) prize adapted another technique, electron microscopy, which uses a beam of electrons rather than ordinary light to inspect samples.


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