The 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry: cryo-electron microscopy and its impact on researchers from the Nordic EMBL Partnership

Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017

Using cryo-EM to generate 3D structures, scientists can create visualisations of numerous complicated protein complexes: a. A protein complex that governs the circadian rhythm. b. A sensor of the type that reads pressure changes in the ear and allows us to hear. c. The Zika virus. Image:  Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Professor Richard Henderson, speaking at a joint cryo-EM inauguration symposium in Sweden in May 2017. The event was organised by SciLifeLab and UCEM, and took place in Stockholm and Umeå. Photo: Eva-Maria Diehl, MIMS 

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to three scientists for the development of a technique that has revolutionised the way we conduct basic molecular biology. The technique, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), means scientists have the ability to produce images of molecules ‘frozen’ in time.

Revolutionary for molecular research

Cryo-EM has revolutionised the way cellular material is viewed; before only dead matter could be examined under an electron microscope – the powerful beam destroyed any living material. Thanks to cryo-EM, molecules can be frozen mid-movement. This means scientists can visualise processes that were previously never seen.

The technique is important for both the basic understanding of matter on a molecular level, and also has important applications for developing pharmaceuticals.

Read more about the scientists and each individual role they played in developing the cryp-electon microscopy technique that we recognise today on the Nobel Prize website

Unmissable opportunity to raise awareness of structural biology, and of cryo-EM

We have gathered some thoughts from researchers within the Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine on what cryo-electron microscopy means to them, and their thoughts on the Nobel Prize:

Harmut Luecke, Assistant Director of Centre for Molecular Medicine Norway (NCMM), and a leading structural biologist working with cryo-Electron Microscopy:

- This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry gives us an unmissable opportunity to help raise public awareness, not just in terms of cryo electron microscopy and its applications, but also of structural biology in general.”

- As a structural biologist, I have personally had the pleasure of witnessing the enormous advances made recently in terms of single-particle cryo-EM. There are many clear advantages to this technique, including the ability to obtain detailed 3D structures with just tiny amounts of material, the ability to determine several functionally relevant conformational states of matter and to reveal the binding mode of drug candidates to their targets.

"It has certainly taken biochemistry into a new and exciting era."

- We are currently working on bringing this technique, recently established in neighbouring countries Sweden and Denmark, to Norway. Because of the advanced machinery required, a state-of-the-art system comes with a hefty price tag of about NOK 50,000,000."

Linda Sandblad, Group Leader at Molecular Infection Medicine (MIMS) and Director of the Umeå Core Facility for Electron Microscopy (UCEM), which includes a cryo-EM facility. UCEM is a national node of SciLifeLab and the National Microscopy Infrastructure of Sweden:

- The winner of year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry is a great choice, and I’m really pleased that cryo-EM has been recognised in this way. The scientists that received the award have been very instrumental in developing the technique; they have contributed hugely, not just to the lab method but also to image processing.

“We use this exact technique at Umeå Core facility for Electron Microscopy (UCEM), and we are currently working on developing and launching our cryo-EM service in early 2018." 

We will offer support for cryo-EM projects to both national, Umeå University and MIMS research groups. Cryo-EM is widely used in projects across the Nordic EMBL Partnership, so it’s really exciting for it to receive this kind of recognition”.

Linda Sandblad (centre) at the Umeå Core Facility for Electron Microscopy (UCEM), Umeå University. Photo: Mattias Pettersson, Umeå University

Poul Nissen, Professor of Protein Biochemistry and Director of the Danish Research Institute of Translational Neuroscience (DANDRITE):

- Umeå, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Aarhus have recently established a very effective partnership for working with cryo-EM, thanks to support from the Wallenberg Foundation (Sweden), the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Carlsberg Foundation and the Lundbeck Foundation (Denmark). There is certainly both great potential and appetite for Oslo to join this network too.

"Cryo-EM and cryo-electron tomography are significant infrastructures for the Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine, and these will only continue to develop and grow in importance for our network." 

By Annabel Darby
Published Oct. 5, 2017 9:39 AM - Last modified Oct. 5, 2017 9:53 AM