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Visualizing Science


Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Improving Microscopy

Eric BetzigStefan W. Helland William E. Moerner have been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for enabling microscopes to gaze at smaller structures than anyone thought possible.  Scientists believed that microscopy would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light for a long time, many even started to consider it a physical limit after microscopist Ernst Abbe declared it so in 1873. Nonetheless, these three scientists circumvented that supposed limit - and changed the world of microscopy.

Using this new micro-microscopy, what has become known as nanoscopy, scientists can now visualize incredibly small features:

They can 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.

From the Nobel Prize committee

Two separate principles are rewarded. One enables the method stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, developed by Stefan Hell in 2000. Two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample, nanometre for nanometre, yields an image with a resolution better than Abbe’s stipulated limit.

Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working separately, laid the foundation for the second method, single-molecule microscopy. The method relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting just a few interspersed molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel. In 2006 Eric Betzig utilized this method for the first time.

Today, nanoscopy is used world-wide and new knowledge of greatest benefit to mankind is produced on a daily basis.

Read the full press release here

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