SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Three scientists, two American and one German, have received this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for, in effect, circumventing a basic law of physics and enabling optical microscopes to peer at the tiniest structures within living cells.
The 2014 laureates, announced Wednesday, are Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia; Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany; and William E. Moerner of Stanford University in California.
In its citation, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize, said the three were being honoured “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy,” which allows the molecular processes to be viewed in real time.
At a news conference after the announcement in Sweden, Mr. Hell said, “I was totally surprised.”
In an interview, Mr. Betzig said he had learned the news in a phone call in Munich, where he was attending a conference. He said his reaction was “I guess elation and fear – the fear that being my life is busy enough and happy enough, and it doesn’t need to be perturbed too much.”
The committee was not able to reach Mr. Moerner before making the announcement.
“I actually still haven’t a chance to talk to them,” Mr. Moerner said Wednesday from a hotel room in Brazil, where he is attending a scientific workshop.
He said his wife had called to tell him the news.
Optical microscopes have allowed biologists to study organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye. But a fundamental law of optics, the diffraction limit, states that the resolution can never be better than half the wavelength of light being looked at.
For optical wavelengths, that limit is about 0.2 micrometres. A human hair is about 100 micrometres wide. But a bacterium is about the size of the diffraction limit, and could be seen only as a blob.
Working separately, the researchers realized they could work around the diffraction limit if they could make parts of the molecules glow.
“Eventually I realized there was a way to play with the molecules,” Mr. Hell said.
By lighting up and then turning off parts of the organism, they could combine images that brought the tiniest of molecules into clear view. That now allows biologists to look at the mechanism of how DNA folds and unfolds within living cells, for example.