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posted: 10/4/2017 7:00 AM

Nobel Prize honors technique for seeing molecules' details

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  • Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, is hugged by his wife Carol Saginaw, in their New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.

    Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, is hugged by his wife Carol Saginaw, in their New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry speaks during a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry speaks during a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • From left, Sara Snogerup Linse, chairman of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry, Goran K. Hansson, secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and Peter Brzezinski, member of the Nobel Committee, sit during a press conference as they announce -  Jacques Dubochet - from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Joachim Frank from Columbia University, USA and Richard Henderson, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, in England as the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.  The Nobel Prize for Chemistry rewards researchers for major advances in studying the infinitesimal bits of material that are the building blocks of life. (Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency via AP)

    From left, Sara Snogerup Linse, chairman of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry, Goran K. Hansson, secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and Peter Brzezinski, member of the Nobel Committee, sit during a press conference as they announce - Jacques Dubochet - from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Joachim Frank from Columbia University, USA and Richard Henderson, from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, in England as the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, at the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry rewards researchers for major advances in studying the infinitesimal bits of material that are the building blocks of life. (Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, poses for a photo with his wife Carol Saginaw, and their dog Daisy, in their New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.

    Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, poses for a photo with his wife Carol Saginaw, and their dog Daisy, in their New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, right, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry speaks next to Nouria Hernandez, left, Rector of UNIL after press conference at the Universitiy of Lausanne, UNIL, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct.  4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, right, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry speaks next to Nouria Hernandez, left, Rector of UNIL after press conference at the Universitiy of Lausanne, UNIL, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, takes a phone call in his New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.

    Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, takes a phone call in his New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.
    Associated Press

  • In this picture released by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland,  Jacques Dubochet, chemistry professor at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), poses in his office, in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2006. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday Oct. 4, 2017  for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (University of Lausanne/Keystone via AP)

    In this picture released by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Jacques Dubochet, chemistry professor at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), poses in his office, in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2006. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday Oct. 4, 2017 for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (University of Lausanne/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, poses for a photo with his wife Carol Saginaw, and their dog Daisy, in their New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.

    Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, poses for a photo with his wife Carol Saginaw, and their dog Daisy, in their New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry speaks during a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry speaks during a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry poses prior to a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry poses prior to a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry jokes prior to  a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil,  in Lausanne, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry jokes prior to a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry smiles before a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry smiles before a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Unil, in Lausanne Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry smiles before a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

    Jacques Dubochet, University of Lausanne, one of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry smiles before a press conference at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developments in electron microscopy. The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)
    Associated Press

  • Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, takes a phone call in his New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.

    Joachim Frank, of Columbia University, takes a phone call in his New York City apartment, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. Frank shares this year's Nobel Chemistry Prize with two other researchers for developing a method to generate three-dimensional images of the molecules of life.
    Associated Press

 
 

STOCKHOLM -- Three researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and Switzerland won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a way to create detailed images of the molecules that drive life - a technology that the Nobel committee said allowed scientists to visualize molecular processes they had never previously seen.

The 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize is shared by Jacques Dubochet of the University of Lausanne, Joachim Frank at New York's Columbia University and Richard Henderson of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Britain.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their method, called cryo-electron microscopy, allows researchers to "freeze biomolecules" mid-movement. The technology "is decisive for both the basic understanding of life's chemistry and for the development of pharmaceuticals," it said.

For instance, the academy said the technique was used when scientists began suspecting the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged children in Brazil. Images of the virus allowed researchers to "start searching for potential targets" for Zika drugs.

Frank said he was "fully overwhelmed" on hearing he had won.

"I thought the chances of a Nobel Prize were minuscule because there are so many other innovations and discoveries that happen almost every day," he said. "So yes, I was in a way speechless."

He said he hasn't yet thought about what to do with the prize money, but added: "I was telling my wife that we don't have to worry about a dog sitter anymore."

American Chemical Society president Allison Campbell said the technology is like "the Google Earth for molecules."

"This discovery allows the scientist to zoom in down to the fine detail (giving) that fine resolution that you want to have," she told The Associated Press. "Having all the exquisite detail just gives you a wealth of information about that protein molecule and how it is interacting with its environment."

Nobel chemistry committee member Heiner Linke added: "It's the first time that we can see biological molecules in their natural environment and how they actually work together down to the individual atoms."

Electron microscopes once were thought to be useful only for examining nonliving material because the electron beam destroys biological material. But cryo-technology - freezing material at extremely low temperatures - protected the examined material from damage.

Dubochet's contribution was to freeze the water in the sample being examined so quickly that it vitrified - forming a kind of glass rather than ice, whose crystalline structure diffracted the electron beam.

Frank developed mathematical models to sharpen fuzzy electron microscope images and Henderson, in 1990, was able to generate a 3-D image of a protein at atom-level resolution.

The annual prize rewards researchers for major advances in studying the infinitesimal bits of material that are the building blocks of life.

Recent prizes have gone to scientists who developed molecular "machines" - molecules with controllable motions - and who mapped how cells repair damaged DNA, leading to improved cancer treatments.

It's the third Nobel announced this week.

The medicine prize went to three Americans studying circadian rhythms: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. The physics prize went to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne for detecting gravitational waves.

The literature winner will be named Thursday and the peace prize will be announced Friday.

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Malcolm Ritter in New York and Bob Lentz in Philadelphia contributed to this story.

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This version corrects the spelling of Jacques Dubochet's last name in the 12th paragraph.

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