Nobel In Chemistry: Understanding Biomolecules

Oct 10, 2017 By Elena, Young Editor
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Last week, three scientists from around the world won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson found a way to visualize biomolecules in 3D with special microscope techniques and mathematical algorithms. This discovery will allow researchers to study molecules in our bodies, in plants and animals, and in infectious viruses.

Since biomolecules effectively determine the courses of our lives, this work is expected to revolutionize modern medicine.

What Are Biomolecules?

Biomolecules are the molecules found in all living things. Every living thing, from a full-grown person, to a tiny, microscopic virus, is made up of many molecules with different shapes, sizes, and functions.

In us, the smallest of these molecules include water and oxygen and the largest are proteins or DNA. The molecules inside of us and in others around us determine almost everything about the way we function. They are responsible for our health and our sickness alike, and for our unique traits--height, eye color, skin tone--you name it.

How Has The Technology Been Used?

When you watch a video with low visual or audio quality, isn’t it harder to understand what is happening or what exactly you’re supposed to be seeing? Scientists have faced a similar problem for years when trying to study biomolecules.

Up until this point, scientists have not been able to look at molecules in good resolution; they could only see grainy, undetailed images. Furthermore, they could not observe the interactions between molecules, which are often the most important factors in medicine.

Cryo-electron microscopy, the new method which gained these three men the Nobel Prize, however, allows researchers to observe how molecules interact by freezing their movement and producing an image with much higher resolution. By taking pictures at different times in a chemical process, they can even create short videos of reactions.

So far, this technology has helped scientists visualize molecules in the Zika virus, which swept through South America last year, examine a key protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and much more. The imaging has already led to more effective research and treatment techniques. As Nobel Committee Chairman Sara Snogerup Linse said, “We are facing a revolution in biochemistry.”

What Comes Next?

According to Frank, one of the three scientists, his technology holds “immense potential.” The imaging system is already branching out from being used to research individual diseases to solve bigger problems in medical science, such as antibiotic resistance (when antibiotics slowly become less effective against diseases over time).

As for the Nobel laureates? Each of them received an equal share of 9 million Swedish kronor, or 1.1 million in US dollars, along with a gold medal, a diploma, and the immeasurable honor of winning a Nobel Prize. Today, they continue to make advances in biochemistry to help us understand ourselves and lead longer, healthier lives.