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The Nobel Prize in chemistry and you

| Thursday, October 5, 2017

On Wednesday, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to three scientists for — according to the official Nobel press release — “developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” If that means nothing to you, you’re not alone.

Cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, is a technology that was actually first developed in the ’70s and ’80s. The theory is pretty simple: You shoot electrons at a sample that has been frozen in place, and use the way the electrons scatter around the sample to figure out what it looks like. That second part is the complicated one, as the electrons have to pass through a magnifying lens before hitting the detector, which is the software that actually works out the structure of the sample.

Cryo-EM has been incredibly useful tool for scientists trying to figure out what cells and proteins actually look like. Think about how that important that is — how can we stop diseases if we don’t know what it looks like, or understand the basic processes of life without knowing the structure of the proteins that guide them? These all-important images are now being provided by cryo-EM, the technology that brought science its best pictures of the Zika virus, revealed the structure of the amyloid-producing enzyme that characterizes Alzheimer’s and provided images of the proteins that guide circadian rhythms. That last one won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine, in case you’re keeping track.

Of course, cryo-EM isn’t the first technology to take pictures of tiny things — it’s just the shiniest. X-ray crystallography, confocal microscopy and various kinds of scanning microscopy can all be used to produce the kind of three-dimensional images cryo-EM gets. But cryo-EM is innovative on two counts: First, because it can take pictures of molecules that aren’t easily imaged by older microscope techniques, and second, because the images it does take are at a much higher resolution, allowing scientists to see more of the details of whatever it is they’re looking at. The development of cryo-EM is really the story of three scientists who were working on independent projects and found themselves unable to get good pictures of their samples. Frustrated by the limitations of the current technology, they decided to try something new — and the result of their efforts brought science a powerful technique, and them a Nobel Prize.

Which one of those is more valuable is hard to say. Science and the Nobel have enjoyed an increasingly complicated relationship over the past few decades. A common criticism is that the Nobel prizes for science can be split between a maximum of three people — but modern scientific breakthroughs are rarely the result of so few researchers. Science is necessarily collaborative. It often takes multiple labs, each with its own specialty, to fully nail down a scientific issue. Beyond that, the discovery that is ultimately attached to a single professor’s name is often built by the work of numerous students, post-docs and lab techs. The 2017 Nobel Prize in physics illustrates the problem excellently: The Prize was awarded to three physicists who helped discover gravitational waves, a huge breakthrough that has already revolutionized astrophysics and undoubtedly deserves recognition. And yet, the author-list for the paper that describes this finding was three pages long. So why are those three honored, while the rest are left anonymous?

Other criticisms include the time it can take to receive a Nobel Prize — the research that led to cryo-EM was conducted in the ’70s and ’80s, so why receive a prize in 2017? The timing matters because Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously; how many excellent and field-defining scientists have passed away before the committee could get around to recognizing them?

Finally, the issue of representation. Women have won 18 out of 593 Nobel Prizes awarded in science since the award’s inception: Twelve of 214 in medicine, four of 175 in chemistry and two of 204 in physics. The problem isn’t limited to science — the Nobel Prizes have an equally sexist distribution in Peace, Literature, Economics — but in a field that is currently fighting to recruit women and reverse historic inequality, the fact that 0.01 percent of Nobel Prize winners in physics are female feels a bit like kicking someone who’s already down.

Regardless of how you feel about the Nobel Prizes and their legitimacy, the scientists who won in chemistry truly do deserve recognition. The applications of cryo-EM are still being explored, and there is no doubt that it will revolutionize biochemistry. Being able to see the details of virtually any protein has enormous implications for how we fight disease, how we study the origins of life and how we visualize the natural processes of our daily world. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these scientists have won a lot more than a Noble Prize.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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