Nobel prize for chemistry awarded to inventors of nanoscale optical
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
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
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.
Stefan W. Hell
William E. Moerner
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,
By Harry Wood
For more information on the science behind nanoscopy see the
"popular explanation" written by the The Royal Swedish Academy of