Three European-born scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a new way to assemble precise three-dimensional images of biological molecules like proteins, DNA and RNA.
Their work has helped scientists decipher processes within cells that were previously invisible, and has led to better understanding of viruses like Zika. In the future, their techniques could offer road maps in the development of drugs to treat diseases.
The winners are Jacques Dubochet, a retired biophysicist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland; Joachim Frank, a professor at Columbia University in New York; and Richard Henderson, a scientist at the British Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.
The Nobel committee said the technique, cryo-electron microscopy, produces “detailed images of life’s complex machineries in atomic resolution.”
“Soon there are no more secrets,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, a professor of physical chemistry at Lund University in Sweden who chaired the committee for the chemistry prize. “Now we can see the intricate details of the biomolecules in every corner of our cells, in every drop of our body fluids.”
Dr. Henderson said during a news briefing in Cambridge that he was delighted to share the prize.
He was at a conference listening to a talk when he was called by the Swedish Academy of Science, which administers the prizes.
“I rejected the phone call,” he said. “Then it rang again.”
He also recognized others who had contributed to the technique’s development.
“I think the feeling is that the three of us who have been awarded the prize are sort of acting on behalf of the whole field,” Dr. Henderson said. “It’s kind of a worldwide effort that’s just now come to fruition.”
Dr. Frank received his phone call at 5:18 a.m. New York time. He said recently his dog has been barking earlier and earlier in the morning, waking up him and his wife. “This time it was not the dog,” he said.
Figuring out the shape of proteins and other biological molecules is crucial to understanding their functions. The structure of a virus, for instance, gives essential clues to how it invades a cell.
For decades, the main method for studying protein structure was stacking many copies of a protein into a crystal, bouncing X-rays off the crystal and then deducing the protein shape using the patterns of X-ray reflections.
But many proteins, especially those embedded in the outer membranes of cells, are too floppy or disordered to crystallize.
Dr. Henderson started his career as an X-ray crystallographer, but stymied by the limitations, he turned to a different instrument: the electron microscope.