A German and two American scientists won the 2014 Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for smashing the size barrier in optical microscopes, allowing researchers to see individual molecules inside living cells.
US citizens Eric Betzig and William Moerner and Germany’s Stefan Hell won the prize for using fluorescence to take microscopes to a new level, making it possible to study things like the creation of synapses between brain cells in real time, Reuters reported.
“Due to their achievements the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Scientists, who have been looking down microscopes since the 17th century, had long thought there was a limit to what could be seen. In 1873, Ernst Abbe stipulated that resolution could never be better than 0.2 micrometers, or around 500 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
But the three Nobel winners bypassed this limit by tagging objects with fluorescent markers and scanning them to build up far more detailed images. Today, such “nanoscopy” is used widely to visualize the internal molecular machinery of cells.
“This is very, very important to understanding how the cell works and understanding what goes wrong if the cell is diseased,” Hell told a news conference by telephone after learning of the award.
Hell, who is director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, said he was “totally surprised” by the prize.
Betzig said he was stunned.
“I have been walking around a daze for the last hour, on a nice day in Munich, fearful that my life has changed,” he told Reuters by phone from the southern German city, where he was scheduled to give a lecture on Wednesday.
Moerner, who is attending a conference in Recife, Brazil, told Reuters TV: “I knew there was a chance but really had no idea… it’s something that makes your heart race.”
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