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How To Take A Nobel Prize-Winning Picture

The Nobel Prize for chemistry just went to a team that discovered a better way to take a picture. Really.

Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner received about $1.1 million and a lifetime of adding "Nobel Prize winner" to their biographies for creating a new way for scientists to look at living cells — peering closer than ever before, or even thought possible.

The method, called super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, is based on the principles behind two separate techniques: Stimulated emission depletion — STED— microscopy, which uses a laser to light up molecules in certain areas of the cell, and single-molecule microscopy, which stacks together many images of fluoresced molecules to reveal fine details.

The approach offers scientists new ways to study how molecules move inside living cells. It could eventually help researchers better understand the connections among nerve cells in the brain, or among proteins involved in diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Huntington's.

Since the development of basic techniques behind super-resolved microscopy in 2000 (STED) and 2006 (single-molecule), many researchers have used variations of the method to create their own detailed images. And if you're itching to try, you can too — just don't expect a Nobel Prize for it. Here's Shots' guide to making your own:

How They Did It

  • The Tiniest Molecules

    This scale shows the tiniest things you can see with a light microscope. Johan Jarnestad/Courtesy of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences hide caption

    toggle caption Johan Jarnestad/Courtesy of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

    In 1873, Ernest Abbe proposed that optical microscopes would never achieve better than a 0.2 micrometer resolution, shown here as the dotted line. The Nobel Prize winners smashed through that barrier with a technique called super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

  • How It Works

    Single-molecule microscopy, one component of the Nobel Prize-winning technique. Johan Jarnestad/Courtesy of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences hide caption

    toggle caption Johan Jarnestad/Courtesy of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

    To create such high-resolution images, laser beams scan a cell, stimulating fluorescent proteins to turn on, one tiny area at a time. Then the images of each tiny area are superimposed to yield one image with nano-level resolution.

    This technique combines two methods developed by the three prizewinners.

  • The Microscope

    The STED microscope, used to fluoresce and suppress molecules. Ansgar Pudenz/Courtesy of German Future Prize hide caption

    toggle caption Ansgar Pudenz/Courtesy of German Future Prize

    The STED microscope, used to fluoresce and suppress molecules.

    Ansgar Pudenz/Courtesy of German Future Prize

    This stimulated emission depletion microscope was developed by Stefan Hell. Two laser beams are used — one to stimulate the fluorescent molecules to glow and another to cancel out all fluorescence except in the one area being examined.

  • Compare And Contrast

    The new microscopy technique (lower right) brings into focus details of cell structures never seen before with light. Courtesy of A. Honigmann, C. Eggeling and S.W. Hell, MPI Göttingen hide caption

    toggle caption Courtesy of A. Honigmann, C. Eggeling and S.W. Hell, MPI Göttingen

    The new microscopy technique (lower right) brings into focus details of cell structures never seen before with light.

    Courtesy of A. Honigmann, C. Eggeling and S.W. Hell, MPI Göttingen

    On the left is a tubulin protein, imaged with traditional microscopy techniques. On the right is a much higher resolution version, taken with the Nobel-winning technology.

  • The Final Picture

    The technique allows us to see living cells at incredible resolution. U. Valentin Nägerl/Courtesy of Université de Bordeaux hide caption

    toggle caption U. Valentin Nägerl/Courtesy of Université de Bordeaux

    The technique allows us to see living cells at incredible resolution.

    U. Valentin Nägerl/Courtesy of Université de Bordeaux

    This image of a nerve cell from a slice of living brain shows the cell decorated with spines, the part that receives inputs and helps transmit electrical signals.

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