Their win is for work on a technique known as cryo-electron microscopy that has allowed scientists to study biological molecules in unprecedented sharpness, not least the Zika virus and proteins thought to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
Being able to capture images of these biological molecules at atomic resolution not only helps scientists to understand their structures, but has opened up the possibility of exploring biological processes by stitching together images taken at different points in time.
The trouble is, x-ray crystallography relies on biological molecules forming ordered structures, which many fail to do, and the technique does not allow researchers to probe how molecules move.
The beam itself fried the biological molecules being studied, while the technique involved the use of a vacuum which resulted in biological molecules drying out and collapsing, throwing a spanner in the works when it came to probing their structure.
Meanwhile Frank developed ingenious image processing techniques to unpick TEM data and build up images of biological molecules as they are in solution, where they point in many different directions.
Henderson’s technique did not work for water-soluble biological molecules, while freezing samples resulted in the formation of ice crystals which caused damage and made the resulting images challenging to interpret.
Among the processes it has made clearer is the mechanism by which DNA is copied into the single-stranded molecule RNA. But the future is also exciting, with scientists using the technique to probe the structure of drug targets, as well as components within cells involved in sensing pain, temperature and pressure.