AIP congratulates Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center, and William E. Moerner of Stanford University for winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."
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The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center, and William E. Moerner of Stanford University "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy."
Their techniques combine microscope imaging with advanced techniques in molecular biology, using fluorescent tags to push past the limits of traditional microscopy and opening up new ways to examine and explore the tiny nanostructures that lie at the heart of biology.
The Nobel Committee recognized two separate techniques: stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy and single-molecule microscopy.
Hell developed STED microscopy in 2000. The approach uses two laser beams. One excites molecules over a large area of the sample, causing them to fluoresce. The other cancels out this fluorescence, leaving only a nanometer-sized cluster glowing in the middle of the field of view. Normally, fluorescing molecules blur together when magnified, decreasing the resolution of the image. But in Hell’s technique, the light is coming from such a small area that the blur is a distinct point whose location can be identified at a very high resolution. By changing the illuminated area, one can gradually scan the image and build up a clear, detailed picture.
Moerner and Betzig's single-molecule microscopy, which the two scientists worked on separately, hinges instead on controlling the fluorescence of individual molecules. A weak beam of light randomly activates a few fluorescent molecules spread out across the sample. Because the molecules activated by the weak light are relatively far apart from each other, they do not blur together and can each be imaged at very high resolution. Another pulse of light activates a different subpopulation of molecules, and the process is repeated again and again. The images can then be superimposed to give a complete picture.
Today, these microscopy techniques are used by researchers around the world to track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and many other diseases to see how molecules travel across synapses in the brain, to study cell division in embryos and for many other applications.
"The famous physicist Richard Feynman once said that many more breakthroughs in science would be possible if you could 'just look at the thing'," said H. Frederick Dylla, the executive director and CEO of AIP. "The work of these three Nobel laureates has allowed us to do just that. Through their work, we are able to better understand the natural designs of human, animal and plant physiologies at the molecular level and to probe the tiny machinery of those unseen structures," Dylla added.
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Eric Betzig was born in 1960 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Betzig received his BS in Physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1983, and his subsequent graduate work at Cornell University involved the development of near-field optics—the first method to break the diffraction barrier in light microscopy. After receiving his PhD in 1988, Betzig became an investigator at AT&T Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ, where he worked extensively in refining semiconductor spectroscopy, high-density data storage and super-resolution fluorescence imaging of cells. This culminated in his 1993 success as the first person to image single fluorescent molecules under "ambient" conditions, determining their positions to better than 1/40 of the wavelength of light. Following a foray from academia into private industry with his father, he partnered with a former Bell Labs colleague, Harald Hess, to develop the first super-high-resolution photo-activated localization microscope. Betzig has been a group leader since 2005 at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute where he is developing new bioimaging techniques.
Stefan W. Hell was born in 1962 in Arad, Romania. A German citizen, he received his both diploma and doctorate in Physics from the University of Heidelberg in 1987 and 1990, and he worked as postdoctoral researcher at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, also in Heidelberg, from 1991–1993. He then served as a senior researcher at the University of Turku, Finland, from 1993–1996 and as a visiting scientist at the University of Oxford in 1994. Hell has served as director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany since 2002, following his appointment as a group leader there in 1997. Hell has received more than 20 distinguished awards for his work at the institute—work which has included conceiving, validating and applying the first viable concept for breaking Abbe’s diffraction-limited resolution barrier in a light-focusing microscope. Hell is also an honorary professor of experimental physics at the University of Göttingen and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Heidelberg.
William E. Moerner was born in 1953 in Pleasanton, California. Moerner received a BS in Physics, a BS in Electrical Engineering and an AB in Mathematics from Washington University in St. Louis in 1975. He obtained an MS and a PhD from Cornell University in 1978 and 1982, respectively. From 1981–1995 Moerner worked at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California as a research staff member, a manger and ultimately as a project leader. He was also a visiting guest professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of technology in Zürich, Switzerland, from 1993–1994. Moerner then served as a Distinguished Chair in Physical Chemistry at the University of California, San Diego from 1995–1998, as well as a visiting professor in the Department of Chemistry at Harvard University from 1997–1998. In 1998, Moerner became a professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, and has served there as the Chemistry Department chair since 2011. He is also a professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford. Throughout his career, Moerner’s work has included multidisciplinary education and research programs in single-molecule spectroscopy, photoactive polymer materials and single-molecule biophysics in cells, among others. He has received a litany of international research awards and lectureships, and currently holds numerous U.S. patents for his work.
Vintage photos of Eric Betzig
© 1992 Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
Photo of Stefan W. Hell
© 2014 AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Gift of Stefan Kaben
Press release from The Biophysical Society (an AIP Affiliated Society; 10/8/14)