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Nobel Chemistry Prize: Superlatives Are the Means, But Not the End

Nobel Chemistry Prize: Superlatives Are the Means, But Not the End

Discoveries led to development of something even better than microscopes. Nanoscopes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 - 18:45

Ben P. Stein, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- If you follow science research, you will often encounter superlatives: fastest, strongest, smallest, biggest, longest, shortest. Researchers earn these superlatives—shortest laser pulse, smallest robot—usually not as an end in itself, but often a means to learn something that has never been known, or do things that have never been accomplished.

Today's Nobel Prize in chemistry contains a kind of superlative in its citation: "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy." Researchers have been trying to push the limits of microscopes for decades. Since the 1870s, it has been known that optical microscopes are limited in how much they can magnify details of an object. Other types of imaging tools have been able to see smaller objects and tinier details, but they have had disadvantages. For example, the electron beams of electron microscopes kill the organisms they aim to study.

Today, the Nobel chemistry committee recognized Eric Betzig, from the Howard Hughes Medical Center in Ashburn, Virginia, Stefan W. Hell, from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, and William E. (W.E.) Moerner, from Stanford University in Stanford, California. All of these researchers surmounted the traditional limits of optical microscopy, which had only been able to see details as small as around 0.2 micrometers (thousandths of a meter), or 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter). With new techniques, researchers are able to push optical microscopes to see details in the tens of nanometers, creating what the Nobel materials call "nanoscopy."

Though they acquired superlatives along the way, from single-molecule imaging, to resolving the smallest details to date with optical techniques, the ultimate motivation was to learn new information about objects at the nanometer scale, including the contents of living cells. 

The Nobel committee recognized numerous techniques in their citation.

Here is Reuters’ video in which Eric Betzig describes some of the microscopy techniques that he has developed:

On SPIE TV, here is W.E. Moerner describing techniques for imaging individual molecules:

Here is Stefan Hell's detailed description of the technique known as Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED):

Today's Nobel Prize, and the work associated with it, has strong connections to many fields, including optics, biophysics, biology, and physics. As a result, researchers in many fields are celebrating.

“It’s a great year for optics, with blue LEDs winning the physics Nobel yesterday and fluorescence microscopy winning the chemistry prize today," said Pierre Meystre, University of Arizona Regents' Professor of Physics and Optical Sciences in a statement from the American Physical Society (which publishes Physical Review Letters, a journal that was cited in numerous places in the Nobel materials, and for which Meystre is the lead editor)."It shows that wonderful things are happening in optics, from saving enormous amounts of energy with efficient lighting to helping with life-saving medical advances that rely on super-resolution imaging. They are completely different technologies, but both light-based, and next year is the International Year of Light, so the timing couldn’t be better.”

Such discoveries take "people with imagination and courage to tackle this hard problem," Peter So, a mechanical and biomedical engineer at MIT. wrote in an email. "As super-resolution optical imaging becomes a standard tool in the repertoire of biomedical researchers, I would expect this ground breaking technological development will also bring novel solutions to many problems in life science and medicine."

Among the news releases starting to appear is this excellent one from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Here are news releases from Stanford, the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, the Biophysical Society, The Optical Society, and the American Institute of Physics.

As a final note for now, kudos to Lauren Wolf, an editor and writer at Chemical & Engineering News, for making correct predictions last week about this year's prize. You can see it here at 5:25:


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Author Bio & Story Archive

Ben P. Stein is a former director of Inside Science and currently the managing editor in the public affairs office at National Institute of Standards and Technology.