The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner.
The researchers won for the development of microscopes that make it possible to study molecular processes in real time (see press release).
Scientists long believed that optical microscopy would never be able to resolve distances smaller than half the wavelength of light, 0.2 micrometres. The three laureates have won the prize for their “groundbreaking work” that broke this limit and brought optical microscopy down to the nanoscale.
The researchers used two separate techniques, both of which make use of the fluorescence or glow of molecules in response to light. In 2000, Hell, working at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, developed a technique called stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy using laser beams.
Betzig, now at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, and Moerner, at Stanford University in California, separately paved the way for the development of a second method known as single-molecule microscopy, which Betzig achieved for the first time in 2006.
Using these techniques, scientists can now “see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain; they 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”, according to a statement released by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
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Update 11:35 a.m.
In 2009 Nature interviewed Hell for a feature on this revolution in microscopy. Read it here.
Hell also features in this Nature Methods‘ Method of the Year 2008 video on various forms of Super-Resolution Microscopy.