All Things Nobel
In an announcement made last week, the 2017 Nobel Prize for chemistry went to three scientists, Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson, for the development of cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM or CEM). Prior to their work, many of the mechanisms in “life’s molecular machinery” were unknown. Cryo-EM technology enables researchers to freeze molecules and capture a snapshot of biochemical processes previously never seen.1 It offers advantages over X-ray crystallography in the sense that it captures images in high atomic resolution with the benefit that the image is captured in a “real” physiological setting, unlike X-ray crystal structures, which are highly dependent upon the quality of the crystal structures being formed. Both technologies, in fact, are complementary to each other, as they give different views of the same molecule or macromolecule.2 Cryo-EM technology has led to recent discoveries such as the structure determination of the GLP-1 receptor, a discovery of a new fibril structure of Amyloid β-Protein (1-42), and is also being used to create three-dimensional images of the Zika virus protein.3 Congratulations to the trio!
Switching gears, we move on to one of the recipients of the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. Ben L. Feringa is a Dutch organic chemist who details his life and work in his Nobel Lecture, “The Art of Building Small: From Molecular Switches to Motors”. He grew up near the German-Dutch border on a family farm, graduated from the University of Groningen, and later returned to the university as a part of the faculty. Feringa first contemplated the Wright brothers and the first demonstration of heavier- than-air, fixed-wing, powered flight at Kitty Hawk. They took their inspiration from the flight of a bird. Much like the Wright brothers, Feringa, in turn, took his inspiration for molecular switches from nature as well. His first designs came from looking at the intricate processes which take place in the human eye, resulting in vision. From there, he turned to optical switching and light-responsive molecules. Light responsive gels, from bisamide-based gelators, can be used to make responsive and self-healing materials. His team also focused on using genetic modification by introducing five cysteines to allow the thiol groups to act as photoswitch attachments in the mechanosensitive channel MscL protein complex. This modification used osmotic pressure to allow materials in and out of a cell, preventing cell damage. These modifications could be used to control transport of targeted molecules. Molecular switches can also be used in the fight against antibiotic resistance. Since bacteria communicate using quorum sensing, a form of communication, to form biofilms through synchronization of gene expression, light-activated antibiotics can disrupt the process.4 We invite you to read his Nobel lecture to learn more about his life and work on molecular machines.
- G. Zanotti, NanoWorld J, 2(2), 22 (2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.17756/nwj.2016-025
- B.L. Feringa, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., 56, 1 (2017). (Nobel Lecture) doi:10.1002/anie.201702979