Nanoscopy Wins Nobel

Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner have won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."

By | October 8, 2014

Eric Betzig (left), Stefan Hell (middle), and William Moerner take home this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.ILL. N. ELMEHED. © NOBEL MEDIA 2014; WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, K. LOWDER Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and William Moerner have won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.”

Betzig, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia; Hell, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center; and Stanford University’s Moerner will share this year’s prize equally. The three are being honored for bringing “optical microscopy into the nanodimension,” enabling scientists to “study living cells in the tiniest molecular detail,” the Nobel Foundation said in its press release announcing the award.

In 2000, Hell developed a technique called stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, which uses laser beams to home in on fluorescently glowing molecules, scanning a sample nanometer by nanometer to produce a high-resolution image. For this and other achievements, Hell shared a 2014 Kavli Award.

Working separately, Betzig and Moerner paved the way for single-molecule microscopy, in which interspersed molecules are fluoresced on and off such that, when the same area is imaged multiple times, superimposition of the resulting images results in nanolevel resolution. Betzig first used this method in 2006.

Bernd Rieger of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands said the three men “opened up a huge field of research [during] the last 8 to 10 years that made it possible to study molecular interactions with a light microscope, which is the work of most cell biologists. . . . They really made a big impact.”

“It’s a great recognition of Stefan’s work and a lot of work that’s been done over many years,” Mark Bates, a postdoc in Hell’s lab, said of his advisor’s Nobel. “The field of super-resolution fluorescence nanoscopy [was] first conceived by Stefan and then pushed forward by a lot of different groups around the world.”

“This isn’t something that was done 20 years ago and has matured now. We’re all still really excited about further developing these methods and applying them to different problems in biology. . . .  These are tools that are going to push forward the fields of neurobiology, cell biology, structural biology,” said Bates. For now, though, the nanobiophotonics department is abuzz with “a lot of people, a lot of champagne, and a lot of celebratory mood.”

Update (October 9, 8:19 a.m.): “Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been increasing use of optical methods to look at single molecules at the nano level,” said Catherine Lewis, director of the Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “The advantage of this [approach] is that you can see the dynamics—molecules moving around, interacting with others, and where they are in the cell.”

Along with advances in instrumentation and fluorescent probes, as well as in computational techniques, the work of Moerner and his co-Laureates “has allowed scientists to observe and see individual single molecules in living cells in real time,” added Lewis. “I’m thrilled about this prize.”

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