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article imageSuper-microscope earns trio Nobel chemistry prize

By Erik Fau (AFP)     Oct 8, 2014 in World

Two Americans and a German won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for laying the foundations of an ultra-powerful microscope that has exposed life at the molecular level.

The tool has revolutionised research into diseases and drug design, the Nobel jury said, as it lauded Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner and Germany's Stefan Hell.

"Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nano-dimension," it said.

"Today, nanoscopy is used worldwide and new knowledge of the greatest benefit to mankind is produced on a daily basis."

US co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Eric Betzig gives a statement in Munich on October...
US co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Eric Betzig gives a statement in Munich on October 8, 2014
Christof Stache, AFP

Working separately, the trio overcame a presumed limit on optical enlargement, theorised in 1873 by microscopist Ernst Abbe.

He said the laws of physics meant the resolution of an image would never be better than around 200 nanometres (200 billionths of a metre), which is half the wavelength of light.

Because of this so-called diffraction limit, it was thought, for instance, that the inner workings of a cell would never be clearly observed, preventing a full understanding of how cells function, reproduce or become infected.

"These are discoveries that have been made in spite of the fact that most scientists thought that it would be impossible," medical biochemist and Nobel Committee member Claes Gustafsson told AFP.

"The strength of the finding is more the way that it opens a door and allows us to ask questions that couldn't be asked before."

German winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Stefan Hell arrives to give a press conference at...
German winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Stefan Hell arrives to give a press conference at the Max Planck Institut in Goettingen on October 8, 2014
Nigel Treblin, AFP

The basis of the laureates' work, dating back to pioneering research by Hell in the 1990s, adds fluorescent molecules to a sample to be studied.

A laser beam is directed at the sample to make the molecules glow, while a second laser beam quenches all fluorescence except for a tiny area of interest in the middle.

As a result, objects as small as 20 nanometres are thrown into sharp relief -- and are observable in real time.

- 'No structure too small' -

Medicine and biology have been the big winners from nanoscopy.

Scientists can now observe the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells and see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain.

This handout photo taken on December 12  2008  provided by the Stanford News Service  shows Professo...
This handout photo taken on December 12, 2008, provided by the Stanford News Service, shows Professor W. E. Moerner, the Harry S. Mosher Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University in California
Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Service/AFP

"They can track proteins involved in Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases as they aggregate; they follow individual proteins in fertilised eggs as these divide into embryos," the jury said.

The technology, it added, had almost infinite possibilities: "Theoretically there is no longer any structure too small to be studied."

One of the laureates, Stefan Hell, was sure the Nobel phone call from Stockholm was a prank until he recognised the voice of a fellow scientist at the other end of the line.

"It was a total surprise, I couldn't believe it... The first moment I thought it was perhaps a hoax," the 51-year-old told the Nobel Foundation.

He added that "the scientific community was not very receptive" to his research at first -- it was considered "kind of crazy".

Jounalists attend a press conference announcing the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on ...
Jounalists attend a press conference announcing the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on October 8, 2014 at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm
Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP

"For more than a hundred years everyone thought we would never be able to see beyond nanometres," he told AFP.

"Now one can see things much smaller than that and it's key to very important research."

Hell is director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany. Betzig, aged 54, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia while 61-year-old Moerner, the eldest of the three -- but closer to the 58-year-old average for Chemistry laureates -- is at Stanford University.

Betzig, who turned his back on science for several years to join his father's machine tool company and later decided to return to research, was trained as a physicist.

"Chemistry was always my weakest subject in high school and college... I would be embarrassed to call myself a chemist," he told the Nobel Foundation.

Betzig also said he felt "equal measures of happiness and fear" on learning of the prize. He likes his life "the way it is now" and is "busy enough", he said.

All three scientists have followed up their work by applying it to medical research.

Hell has peered inside living nerve cells in order to better understand brain synapses, while Moerner has studied proteins in relation to Huntington’s disease and Betzig has tracked cell division inside embryos.

The trio will share the prize sum of eight million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million, 876,000 euros).

In line with tradition, the laureates will receive their award at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

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