A Nobel Prize that’s actually comprehensible  

The total lunar eclipse and the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry both took place at the same time last night, so we decided to make it an insomnia two-fer. We were rewarded with a beautiful moon the color of Mars and Sonoma, and a fascinating discussion of super-resolution microscopy, which is likely to drive biomedical research for decades to come.

Imaging super-small biological features historically had a big problem: Because of the techniques required to prepare the specimens, if you wanted to see details below the diffraction limit of light (approximately 200 nanometers), what you were looking at had to be dead.

But what scientists hope to understand are the many processes in living cells that can determine whether we lead healthy lives or fall victim to diseases and other debilitating conditions. Most of those cellular processes, however, take place at the single molecule level, below the diffraction limit. Using a light microscope, which does allow for living specimens, all a researcher could see would be a blurry spot, instead of clearly resolved individual molecules.

In 2000, Stefan Hell became the Chuck Yeager of light microscopy, when he demonstrated a way to break through the diffraction limit, which had stood as a barrier to discoveries since it was first described by Ernst Abbe in 1873. Later, William Moerner, Eric Betzig and other scientists, including Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz and Xaiowei Zhuang, two women not cited by the Nobel committee, created limit-breaking techniques that were more easily accessible to most researchers.

Now, cutting-edge biomedical researchers can detect such biological processes as single proteins interacting with other proteins. Simply put, just like in a mechanical assembly line, if you know all the steps in the manufacturing process, you can know at what step something went wrong—and begin to understand how to fix it.

Here’s the video of the Nobel press conference. At 7:05, there’s a slide show explaining the work.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbfwcroJqWM]