RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is Nobel Prize week. And so far, Nobels have been handed out in physics and medicine. Today it's chemistry.
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MARTIN: In Stockholm this morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry to, quote, "a cool method for imaging the molecules of life." NPR's science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us about it.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.
MARTIN: Who won, first off?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So it was three chemists. It was Jacques Dubochet in Switzerland, Richard Henderson in the United Kingdom, and here in the United States, we had Joachim Frank of Columbia University in New York.
MARTIN: All right, and they won for this, quote, unquote, "cool method for imaging the molecules of life." Unpack what that means.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the actual citation said it was, quote, "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution."
MARTIN: (Laughter) Uh-huh, and that means...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So basically, these three researchers together developed techniques that now let scientists kind of freeze a biological molecule in midmovement. They can sort of take a moment of its action, and preserve it and then peer at it at the sort of atomic level to understand its total structure and how other things might interact with it.
Now, you know, that sounds kind of complicated, but the main thing to know is that in your body right now, all the molecules of your life are acting in water. And these three scientists figured out ways of adapting electron microscopes, which had been around for a long time, so that they could study these molecules of life that normally act in water.
MARTIN: And cyro (ph) - I mean, we're talking about freezing something, right?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right, so freezing is part of it. In 1990, Richard Henderson managed to use an electron microscope to show the first 3-D structure of a protein at atomic resolution. And then Jacques Dubochet figured out a way to take biomolecules in water and freeze them so rapidly that the cooled water kind of solidified around the biomolecule in a way that let it keep its natural state during the imaging process.
And then the other guy, Joachim Frank, developed an image-processing method that would let them take a whole bunch of fuzzy, two-dimensional images and put them together in a kind of 3-D image showing the molecule in all of its splendor.
MARTIN: So why does this matter? I mean, what are the consequences of this particular kind of revelation?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So knowing structure and being able to see structure helps you understand function. And take something like the Zika virus. You know, when that emerged recently, one of the first things scientists raced out to do was use techniques like these to figure out the structure of the virus. And once you had the whole 3-D structure of the virus, you could start thinking about what kind of pharmaceuticals could interact with it to, you know, help treat it. And that's the kind of thing that's happening everywhere in biochemistry right now. It's really this new era in biochemistry where they can look in at molecules in a way that they never could before.
MARTIN: And they take away some prize money with this award (laughter).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They do. It's over three - over a million dollars the three of them will share.
MARTIN: All right, Nell Greenfieldboyce, reporting this morning on the Nobel Prize for chemistry, which has been awarded today to three scientists. Thanks so much for your time this morning.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
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