Nobel prize for chemistry awarded to inventors of nanoscale optical microscope

8 October 2014

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014 has been awarded jointly to Eric Betzig, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, USA; Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center; and William E. Moerner of Stanford University, USA.

The prize has been awarded  for having bypassed a presumed scientific limitation stipulating that an optical microscope can never yield a resolution better than 0.2 micrometres because it was assumed this was limited by the wavelength of light. Using the fluorescence of molecules, scientists can now monitor the interplay between individual molecules inside cells; they can observe disease-related proteins aggregate and they can track cell division at the nanoscale.

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.

For the greater part of the 20th century scientists believed that in optical microscopes they would never be able to observe things smaller than roughly half the wavelength of light —
0.2 micrometres. This was show by the microscopist Ernst Abbe in an equation he wrote in 1873. At this scale the contours of some of the cell's organelles, such as the powerhouse mitochondria, are visible. But it is impossible to discern smaller objects and, for instance, to follow the interaction between individual protein molecules in the cell.

Using fluorescence theoretically no structure is too small to be viewed, so this form of microscopy has become known as nanoscopy.

Eric Betzig
Eric Betzig
Stefan W. Hell
Stefan W. Hell
William E. Moerner
William E. Moerner

Short Biographies

Eric Betzig, U.S. citizen. Born 1960 in Ann Arbor, MI, USA. Ph.D. 1988 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Group Leader at Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA, USA.

Stefan W. Hell, German citizen. Born 1962 in Arad, Romania. Ph.D. 1990 from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, and Division head at the German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany.

William E. Moerner, U.S. citizen. Born 1953 in Pleasanton, CA, USA. Ph.D. 1982 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.

By Harry Wood

More information

For more information on the science behind nanoscopy see the "popular explanation" written by the The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:


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