Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Achievements in Super-Resolution Microscopy

Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner awarded for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy

October 09, 2014

On October 8th 2014, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2014 to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy".

For a long time optical microscopy was held back by a presumed limitation: that it would never obtain a better resolution than half the wavelength of light. Helped by fluorescent molecules the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry 2014 ingeniously circumvented this limitation. Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension.

Surpassing the limitations of the light microscope

In what has become known as nanoscopy, scientists visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells. 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.

It was all but obvious that scientists should ever be able to study living cells in the tiniest molecular detail. In 1873, the microscopist Ernst Abbe stipulated a physical limit for the maximum resolution of traditional optical microscopy: it could never become better than 0.2 micrometres.

Fig. 1: Abbe's diffraction limit (© Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014 for having bypassed this limit. Due to their achievements the optical microscope can now peer into the nanoworld.

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.

Fig. 2: The principle of STED microscopy (© Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

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.

Fig. 3: The principle of single-molecule microscopy (© Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

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

 

Read more about the scientific background on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014

 

Learn how the optical microscope became a nanoscope

 

Video of the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014


Eric Betzig – "Chemistry was always my weakest subject ..."

Eric Betzig was in Germany preparing for a keynote when he got the news:


Stefan W. Hell – "I Love to be a Scientist"

Stefan W. Hell was going through the details of a paper when he got the news:


William E. Moerner – "Your heart races. Can this be?"

William E Moerner was in Brazil to take part in a conference when his wife in California forwarded the news:


Related Article on Science Lab: Interview with Stefan Hell

In this video Stefan Hell gives some personal insights into the success story of super-resolution microscopy:

Comments

Help us to improve the Leica Science Lab and participate in our survey! Start Survey

Arrow Down

Arrow Up