Americans Eric Betzig and William Moerner and German scientist Stefan Hell won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing new methods that let microscopes see finer details than they could before.
The three scientists were cited for "the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy," which the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said had bypassed the maximum resolution of traditional optical microscopes.
"Their ground-breaking work has brought optical microscopy into the nanodimension," the academy said.
Betzig, 54, works at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia. Hell, 51, is director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany. Moerner, 61, is a professor at Stanford University in California.
For a long time optical microscopes were limited by among other things the wavelength of light. So scientists believed they could never yield a resolution better than 0.2 micrometers.
But helped by fluorescent molecules, the three scientists were able to break that limit, taking optical microscopy into a "new dimension" that made it possible to study the interplay between molecules inside cells, including the aggregation of disease-related proteins, the academy said.
Each of the laureates has used these methods to study the tiniest components of life.
Hell has studied nerve cells to get a better understanding of brain synapses; Moerner has studied proteins related to Huntington's disease; and Betzig has tracked cell division inside embryos, the academy said.
"I was totally surprised, I couldn't believe it," Hell said after learning he had won. "Fortunately I remembered the voice of Nordmark and I realized it was real," he added, referring to the Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Moerner said it's been 25 years since the first measurements were made.
"I'm incredibly excited and happy to be included with Eric Betzig and Stefan Hell," Moerner told The Associated Press.
Earlier, the AP broke the news to Moerner's wife, Sharon, who then called her husband at a conference in Brazil. "I'm delighted, thrilled. I had no idea it would be these three individuals," Sharon Moerner said.
Tom Barton, president of the American Chemical Society, said the laureates' work allowed progress in many fields because it let scientists see molecules and other features with unprecedented resolution. And for biology, he noted, it allows researchers to study very fine details of living things While a special kind of microscope called the electron microscope can see even finer details, it can't be used on living tissue.
"Before maybe we could just see the contours of bacteria but now we can look inside the bacteria and we can see things as small as individual molecules," said Nobel committee member Claes Gustafsson.
"This technique means that suddenly we can start studying details that we could only dream of before and this is really a revolution because as recently as 15 years ago, it was believed to be theoretically impossible to break this barrier," he said.
In 2008, Moerner scooped Israel's prestigious Wolf Prize with Allen J. Bard of the University of Texas-Austin for developing the field of single molecule optical imaging. Wolf winners are considered strong contenders for Nobel prizes. In the over 30 years the Wolf Foundation has granted the awards, about one out of three laureates in chemistry, physics and medicine have gone on to receive the Nobel.
Last year's chemistry prize went to three U.S.-based scientists who developed powerful computer models that researchers use to understand complex chemical interactions and create new drugs.
This year's Nobel announcements started Monday with U.S.-British scientist John O'Keefe splitting the medicine award with Norwegian couple May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for breakthroughs in brain cell research that could pave the way for a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's.
On Tuesday, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and Japanese-born U.S. scientist Shuji Nakamura won physics award for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes — a breakthrough that spurred the development of LED technology that can be used to light up homes and offices and the screens of mobile phones, computers and TVs.
The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced Thursday, followed by the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the economics prize on Monday.
Last year, Israeli-born Arieh Warshel and South African-Israeli Michael Levitt shared a Nobel Prize for chemistry, becoming the 11th and 12th Israelis to garner that honor.
The prizes are always handed out in ceremonies on December 10, the date that prize founder Alfred Nobel died in 1896. A wealthy Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, Nobel wanted his awards to honor those who "have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind," but gave only vague instructions on how to select winners.
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