Here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for. The final Nobel prize that I care about has been announced. I mean Peace? Literature? Economics? Please, no one cares about…
*sounds of tube socks being filled with nickels*
I have been informed by the other authors that people do care about economics, literature and peace. But this is my fucking section, so we’ll talk about what I want. This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson for their work on cryo-electron microscopy.
Compared to many other mammals, humans are extremely visual creatures. If you don’t believe me, try closing your eyes — go on, I’ll wait. Now open them again. Oh, wait, shit, you can’t read that with your eyes closed, can you? Well, if you’re that obedient, good on you, but I doubt I was going to keep you as a long-term reader, anyway. Regardless, we often use vision to aid us in understanding a concept, and to transition from the abstract to the concrete. In the last century, however, our understanding of biology and biochemistry has far outstripped our ability to see the molecular machinery of life.
A major breakthrough in allowing us to look at things that are, like, really, really small (stop me if I’m getting too technical) was the development of the electron microscope in the 1920s and ’30s. Because the electron has a wavelength 100,000 times shorter than light, it allows for much higher resolution imaging. When observing biological matter, it has the mild drawback of destroying it: Molecules like proteins have a highly ordered, folded structure, and will lose that structure when exposed to a different environment (see, e.g., fig. 1: frying an egg. Source: your own damn imagination). Images taken with electrons were also often fuzzy and indistinct. Plus, biological molecules function in an aqueous solution, and degrade in the vacuum that electron microscopes require.
Enter our three scientists extraordinaire, who apparently had never heard the words “physically impossible.” Images were fuzzy? Well, in the 1980s, Joachim Frank used computers to look at multiple pictures of the same molecule, identify similar areas on each image, and merge the consistent areas together to smooth out the roughness, even using pictures from various angles to construct a 3D image. Biologic matter degrades on its own? In 1990, Richard Henderson imaged a bacterial membrane protein by keeping it in the supportive cell membrane, and coating it with a glucose solution to prevent it from drying out in the vacuum. Molecules need to exist in water? In 1982, Jacques Dubochet vitrified water — froze it so fast that instead of crystallizing, it solidified in its liquid structure — allowing the protein being imaged to be locked into its biologic structure, even mid-reaction. TAKE THAT, NOT-SO-INSURMOUNTABLE OBSTACLES!
These developments have had impacts far beyond “oh, neat, that’s what they look like.” The most notable example has been researchers using these techniques to create three-dimensional images of the Zika virus and its proteins, allowing them to find the targets pharmaceuticals could bind.
Plus, Randy, on a personal note, there is hope of one day taking a photo of your penis, thanks to Science: the great dick-pic equalizer.