Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To Researchers Who Improved 'Imaging Of Biomolecules' They were honored for developing a new way to generate 3-D images of biological molecules. Researchers are using the technique to study everything from the Zika virus to Alzheimer's disease.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/555710509/555710510" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To Researchers Who Improved 'Imaging Of Biomolecules'

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

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/555710509/555710510" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

They were honored for developing a new way to generate 3-D images of biological molecules. Researchers are using the technique to study everything from the Zika virus to Alzheimer's disease.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.