Eric Betzig, William Moerner, Stefan Hell win 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry

One German and two US scientists develop new methods that let microscopes see finer details

By Rajit Sengupta
Published: Wednesday 08 October 2014

Eric BetzigUS scientists Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their contribution to nanoscopy with their development of “super-resolved fluorescence microscopy”.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Wednesday that for a long time, optical microscopy was held back by a presumed limitation: that it would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light. The three scientists ingeniously circumvent this limitation with the help of fluorescent molecules. Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nano dimension.

William MoernerIn nanoscopy, scientists visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells. They can see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain; can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases as they aggregate; they follow individual proteins in fertilized eggs as these divide into embryos. In 1873, microscopist Ernst Abbe had stipulated the physical limit for the maximum resolution of traditional optical microscopy could never become better than 0.2 micrometres. But Betzig, Hell and Moerner have successfully bypassed this limit.

This has been achieved through two separate principles. One enables the method stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, developed by Stefan Hell in 2000. Two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample, nanometre for nanometre, yields an image with a resolution better than Abbe’s stipulated limit. German scientist Hell is the director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, and division head at the German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany.

Stefan Hell US scientists Eric Betzig (54 years) and William Moerner (61 years), working separately, laid the foundation for the second method, single-molecule microscopy. The method relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting just a few interspersed molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel. Betzig is a group leader at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, US. Moerner is a professor at Stanford University, US. In 2006 Eric Betzig utilized this method for the first time.

The three scientists will receive a total amount of 8 million Swedish Krona. This year marks the 275th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Academy was founded in 1739 and is an independent organization whose overall objective is to promote the sciences and strengthen their influence in society.

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